June 2010


Birding lends itself, no question, to amateur ornithology and to what in the old days was called nature-study and might now be referred to as basic field ecology. But that’s not the only way that it’s educational! Consider:

Geology, hydrology: If the uphill end of the field is muddy, the downhill end will be very, very muddy.
Physics: The mud will try to eat your shoes.
Phys. Ed.: But after a vigorous fight, you can thwart it.
History, Logic: If the barn burned down two years ago, you can’t use the hose in the barn to wash your shoes off now.
Sociology: Take your muddy shoes off before you go in the house, dammit.
Meteorology: Maybe it will rain again and wash your shoes off for you!

For every type of fossil fuel that we so profligately burn, it seems there’s a newsworthy disaster lately relating to the method of getting it out of the ground. The Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill, of course, need no introduction. The various coal-mining disasters, with their loss of human life and despoliation of entire landscapes, are similarly well-known.

And natural gas has hydraulic fracturing, aka hydrofracking. Although this isn’t the nationally-known buzzword that BP is, hydrofracking – a technique in which high-pressure liquid is used to fracture rock and extract the gas – has also started racking up a litany of accidents, notably in Pennsylvania.

The deposits of natural gas involved in these untoward events are found in a rock formation called the Marcellus Shale – a formation that also extends into New York. Other shale beds in New York, notably the Utica shale, are also believed to contain commercially significant concentrations of natural gas.

The battle is heating up between those who favor bringing hydrofracking into New York State, citing potential economic benefits for financially beleaguered communities, and those who fear that the process could actually strip entire regions of the ability to make money via recreation, tourism, and agriculture, while profiting mainly out-of-state gas companies and degrading both human quality of life and the environment. Tempers are high, since both paying the mortgage and keeping benzene out of the family’s well are potentially matters of life and death.

I, as you might have guessed, say nay on hydrofracking. Once you’ve contaminated an aquifer, you can’t un-contaminate it – and it is no exaggeration to say that groundwater is the life’s blood of everything that makes Central and Western New York valuable on a human scale. But this is a bird blog. What of the birds?

Well, it turns out that in addition to all the other problems with hydrofracking, they possess – as if representing a giant, gratuitous middle finger extended heartily to Mother Nature – extremely bright lights which are kept running whenever the well is.

And we all know how helpful bright, isolated, man-made lights are for migrating birds.

Even if you favor natural gas extraction through hydraulic fracturing, it’s plain that a negative impact as incidental as light pollution should be monitored closely, regulated vigorously, and mitigated to the greatest extent possible. But energy companies are notoriously adverse to even the most sensible regulation, so action must be taken to ensure that their feet are held to the fire by state government. Contacting the DEC and your elected officials directly is the most effective step.

For a one-click way to register your disapproval of the entire hydrofracking fiasco, there is also the option of signing the petition. Better still if you do all of the above.

The Wildlife Conservation Society is conducting a breeding bird survey of the Bronx Zoo grounds, over a hundred years after the first (and until now, only) such count on the property.

plush-crested jay

Not Counted

Not only does the original count provide important information about a lost era, it has added historical richness because it was conducted and written up by legendary naturalist C. William Beebe. His account of the 1904 survey contains the expected – mention of birds that are now absent but for migration, like New York’s own state bird, the Eastern Bluebird. But lest you be tempted to pine for a false golden age, he also notes what isn’t there, including some extremely surprising absences like a lack of nesting Mallards (a lack which 2010 has rectified.)

Even more interesting is the fact that Beebe devotes almost two paragraphs to a spirited defense of the ‘sparrow hawk’ (presumably the Sharp-shinned Hawk), the Screech Owl, and the shrike as agents of pest control. In light of the kind of park management that went on at the time, it’s clear that his insight was much-needed and all to often unheeded.

Beebe’s love of the Sharpie was only equaled by (and, it seems clear, partly inspired by) his hate-on for the Black-throated Brown Warbler, “which only wholesale and systematic shooting has prevented from overrunning the park.” He was also leery of the then-unubiquitous Starling, of which he writes “This is a handsome bird and a fine whistler, but when we realize how surely he is elbowing our native birds out of their rights his beauties vanish and we perceive he is as much of a villain as the English sparrow.”

Clearly, C. William Beebe was a man well ahead of his time.

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Photo by Stavenn

Luke Dempsey’s (sadly mediocre) book A Supremely Bad Idea devotes a whole chapter* to the Cerulean Warbler. In it, the author and a pair of pseudonymous weirdos travel to Minnesota to see the lovely and vulnerable bird on its breeding grounds.

Well, the desire to see a Cerulean Warbler is about the only thing I share with Dempsey. Fortunately for me, going to Minnesota to see Dendroica cerulea is unnecessary; they also breed on Bear Mountain, at the charmingly-named ghost town Doodletown. So one fine day in early June I too set forth with a couple of eccentric companions (the incorrigible Corey Finger and a gentleman named Danny who may or may not wish to be splashed all over the internet) to track one down.

And did we ever! While the first Cerulean we encountered was content to be heard and not seen, we only had to hike a little further up the mountain to find another, more forthcoming specimen. We also found an enormous rat snake; Redstarts, Black-and-White Warblers, and Yellow Warblers; a calling Yellow-billed Cuckoo; vast rapturous kettles of Turkey Vultures, with the occasional Black Vulture thrown in. We did not find any Hooded Warblers, although we heard plenty. But, to keep things awesome, we found two more male Ceruleans showing well.

(Here I should note that ‘showing well’ meant, for me, ‘showing spectacularly’, since Corey was kind enough to loan me a review pair of Swarovskis to temporarily replace my battered Minox warhorse.)

By lunchtime, we’d proved to our satisfaction that Ceruleans existed, and not just in Minnesota. It was time to move on to our next target: the Golden-winged Warbler.

(But first, an interlude occurred in which horrific snack products of unnatural hues were purchased and consumed, but not by me. I stuck to the entirely more legitimate mayonnaise-and-sliced-meat-on-bread-with-alleged-lettuce food group.)

Then it was onward to Sterling Forest. By this time the sun was high, the day was hot, and the other birders at the site were packing it in – but not without passing along thrilling tales of singing Golden-wings and horrifying warnings of plentiful ticks. One of these would be borne out. (Note: The title contains spoilers.)

Golden-winged Warbler, like Cerulean, is a species facing trouble. Vermivora chrysoptera favors scrubby areas early in the process of reverting from field to forest, and in the northeastern U.S. such areas are getting harder to come by. Moreover, the Blue-winged Warbler tends to hybridize with the Golden-wing when their ranges overlap. This creates a merely ontological puzzle for birders, but more of an immediate and pragmatic problem for the species.

The dog tick faces no such crisis. At least not at Sterling Forest, where after trudging up a hill through a powerline cut in the blazing sun (Prairie Warbler, Brown-headed Cowbird, Indigo Bunting, and more Turkey Vultures (who could probably smell us by this time)) and through an open forest with the potential for impending bears (Scarlet Tanager, Baltimore Oriole, Common Yellowthroat) and back up another hill in the same powerline cut (no birds to speak of, but some cool frogs and butterflies) we had neither sighted nor heard a single GWW – but the dog ticks, ah…

Between the three of us, we had brushed three ticks off our carefully tucked-in pants before getting back into the car (and just before a second Yellow-billed Cuckoo flew over us as a consolation prize.) Not so bad, you might say! And indeed, that wasn’t bad. Bad was when, back in the car and en route, first Corey and then Danny and then myself turned up with an additional dog tick – surprisingly clingy little buggers who vigorously resisted being flung out the car window. Really bad was when I reached up to scratch my head and found one of them crawling in my hair.

By this time we were all freaking out like we were in withdrawals, thinking we felt crawling everywhere. Not only are dog ticks creepy in and of theirownselves, we all had a powerful aversion to having them attach to our persons – Corey having a vulnerable, no doubt sweet-blooded infant at home, Danny having a dog, and me just having a profoundly selfish and unenvironmentalist aversion to serving as a habitat for Rickettsia rickettsii. The ride home, flinging more ticks onto the pavement all the way, was long. Also long – the shower that I found myself taking afterward.

That said, none of this should make the ambitious birder shy away from Sterling. We got there too late on too hot a day for luck to favor us, but it is still an excellent location for the elusive Golden-wing. Just be sure to tuck your pants into your socks! And, somehow, your hair into your socks as well.

*or roughly 1/5 as many pages as the author spends whining about his divorce.

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So! I have a really exciting post for you, full of struggle and triumph and not-triumph and almost-triumph and covetousness and mayonnaise and really the entire amazing spectrum of human experience. But I can’t tell it to you right now because I’m busy fending off an army of undead dog ticks who want revenge:

undead tick

*artist's impression

So for now, here is an article about my quasilocal, beloved, recently-Superfunded Gowanus canal, and the issue of whether the invasive hipster fauna can hope to adapt to the coming clean-up: Celebration at the Edge of Decay. This is a New York Times trend piece, and must be taken with the appropriate amount of salt, but admit it, you want a free canoe ride too!

Warning: Ticks can swim.

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