June 2008

Just fyi, I’m in Merry Olde England right now. I went to the museum and saw my namesake (along with a beautiful pair of Imperial Woodpeckers and many other things) and Charlie of 10000 Birds was kind enough to take me around the Bath area, showing me marvelous things (Tufted Duck! Lapwing! Yellowhammer! Hobby!)

Since I have to buy a beer every time I want to use the internet, updates will be sparse (I already spilled beer on my laptop once) but once I get home I will have a number of excellent posts that you will not want to miss.

I’m really surprised that this isn’t making more of a blogospheric buzz: Not one, not two, but three Mississippi Kites are currently in New Hampshire, and two of them are attempting to nest – the first recorded occasion, apparently, that this species has nested north of the Carolinas Virginia, although strays go by northeastern hawkwatches with some regularity. This elegant raptor is one that I’ve always wanted to see – I had high hopes of it on my Florida trip this spring, actually, although they were ultimately dashed.

There are a number of interesting things about all this, besides the fact that it’s happening at all. The Lab of O’s website indicates that Kites from the Great Plains often nest in urban areas, while southeastern Kites are mainly forest nesters – this family is nesting in a large maple in someone’s yard near a high school, and apparently has shown very little inclination to be disrupted by dogwalkers, lawnmowers, and even gaggles of flabbergasted and delighted birders. Of course there’s the question of the family structure; this is one of the species in which sub-adults are known to serve as nest helpers, so if and when the young hatch it will be interesting to see if the odd bird out, apparently a young female, takes on this role. Did she follow the pair on their eccentric migratory route – is she perhaps one of their young from last year – or was she already off-course when she found them and joined up out of desperation? Are these three responsible for the spate of Mississippi Kite sightings in various NYC parks that occurred in mid/late May of this year?

And, of course, will they succeed? Do they mean anything for the future? Vagrant nesters, as everyone from Jack Connor to Nate at the Drinking Bird will remind us, live lives fraught with Darwinian peril (but then again, don’t we all?) Still, with three birds there already, success this year might be the start of a colony, and selfishly I have to approve of this if it means more Kites inclined to migrate over Prospect Park.

add to del.icio.us :: Add to Blinkslist :: add to furl :: Digg it :: add to ma.gnolia :: Stumble It! :: add to simpy :: seed the vine :: :: :: TailRank :: post to facebook

The Caribbean monk seal has been officially declared extinct; it holds the unlucky distinction of being the first pinniped driven into oblivion by human activities, but it seems unlikely to be the last.

This species – limpid-eyed, round-headed, and sleek, like all seals, not unlike how Kurt Vonnegut envisioned the future of our own species – needs no eulogy from me. Its greatest memorial is likely to be the remarkable and powerful The New Moon’s Arms by Nalo Hopkinson. A book for a species is no very fair trade, regardless of the caliber of the book, but if that’s how it has to go, the least we can do is have a really good book. And this is.

Declaring a species extinct is always an exercise in the evidence of absence, tricky and unwelcome. The seal has not been reliably seen since 1952 ( slightly less than a decade after the last confirmed nesting of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Louisiana and a decade before the last confirmed sighting of the Eskimo Curlew in Texas) but it likely grew shy as it faded, and may have hung on until the 1980s.

The temptation as always is to ask if it is hiding, but it’s just that, a temptation and a dodge. In any case, the example of its close cousin the Mediterranean monk seal shows that hiding doesn’t help; that species has adapted to give birth in caves with underwater entrances, to avoid rapacious humans, but they are still a contender for most endangered mammal and bidding fair for the distinction of second pinniped to be exterminated by humankind. The New Moon’s Arms has a plot that revolves around finding things thought lost; but it also deals with real, permanent loss. The main character can’t choose what she finds again, and past mistakes can’t always be fixed. Let it stand in memoriam.

add to del.icio.us :: Add to Blinkslist :: add to furl :: Digg it :: add to ma.gnolia :: Stumble It! :: add to simpy :: seed the vine :: :: :: TailRank :: post to facebook

I hadn’t seen the partially leucistic (?) American Robin near the Dog Beach since my first encounter with hir back in April. I assumed that this eye-catching bird had caught the eye of local hawk or some other predator and gone the way of all flesh.

Not so! The tireless Rob Jett has been chasing rumors of the Robin for awhile, and he finally caught up with it this Sunday. He got some photos that you should definitely check out; it’s almost as good as if Inimitable Todd had been there!

Meanwhile, I’m gearing up to go see those “real” Robins and the other birds of the green and pleasant isle & co. I’ll be spending the bulk of my time in London and points reachable on a day-trip from London by train, followed by a jaunt up to Glasgow and thence to Inverness. While I already have a smattering of British birds on my life list from a prior trip to Glasgow (including Shag, Grey Heron, Hooded Crow, Pied/White Wagtail, the aforementioned Robin, and most importantly Little Auk) I’m looking forward to adding a lot of lifers, enjoying some scenic countrysides, and making a number of jokes about Great Tits, as is required by law of all American birders who visit Britain or Europe. Good times; if anyone has any suggestions about what to check out, particularly in the London area, let me know!

add to del.icio.us :: Add to Blinkslist :: add to furl :: Digg it :: add to ma.gnolia :: Stumble It! :: add to simpy :: seed the vine :: :: :: TailRank :: post to facebook

It’s not like I actually read the New York Post. Well, in this one instance I did. But someone left it on the subway, so it’s not like I paid for it or anything. You still respect me, right?

Well, with that out of the way, I have to thank the Big Apple’s Yellow Press Express for bringing it to my attention that today is National Pigeon Day. The event honors the ubiquitous Columba livia in all its guises. Great domestic pigeons of the past – mostly messenger pigeons used to carry dispatches in wartime – are lauded. Pigeon poaching is decried.

Pigeon poaching?

Yes, one of the aims of the day is to raise awareness about pigeon poaching, and I have to admit, it worked on me, because I was not aware of that problem at all. Apparently, there are individuals in this fair city who make it a practice to go out, spread seed, net the pigeons who gather, and sell them.

Which raises, inevitably, the question of who is buying?

The Post alleges that some of the birds are sold for racing – which strikes me as wildly improbable, since raising pigeons are specially bred from specific domestic strains. They also claim that some are shipped to Pennsylvania for pigeon shoots, while others may end up as chow – more plausible, to be sure.

Now, poaching implies illegal. Feeding street pigeons to unwitting consumers would be mad illegal, or at least I dearly hope so. Transporting pigeons across state lines, as to a pigeon shoot in Pennsylvania, apparently requires a license which these miscreants haven’t got. That too makes good sense from an animal welfare and disease control point of view. But the actual taking of pigeons – the poaching – is it poaching? Pigeons, being non-native and non-migratory, aren’t protected by law any more than House Sparrows or Starlings.

However, if there’s a demand for them, then the supply ought to be properly regulated. A sensible, humanely conducted pigeon harvest could balance pigeon control, animal welfare, sustainability (not that I think Rock Pigeons will be hunted to extinction, but people didn’t think that about the last Pigeons I posted about either…) and public safety; it could create revenue for the city (perhaps we could get a punning headline in the Post by earmarking it for statue and park maintenance or something) and who knows but maybe they are safe enough to eat, in which case, hey, cheap, locally-grown, free-range protein!


Happy National Pigeon Day!

add to del.icio.us :: Add to Blinkslist :: add to furl :: Digg it :: add to ma.gnolia :: Stumble It! :: add to simpy :: seed the vine :: :: :: TailRank :: post to facebook

AKA I and the Bird #77; The Birds Greatest Hits

Summer is icumen in (and me without a cuckoo!) And this blog, as avid readers know, is located in New York City, where summer didn’t just Icumen in, it hit like a hammer this past week. Seriously, I expected to melt away like a Kate Smith album left in a car in Tennessee.

Even when it isn’t like a heat wave, though, June is the cruelest month for the birders of North America, with an end to migrants and few vagrants. I know this for a fact because Jack Connor not only said so in his The Complete Birder, he made it a chapter subhead. Nothing we can do, it’s a total eclipse of the migrants! So how are my fellow birders holding up?

Well, it looks like me and Jack were wrong about June for Summer Fey Foovay of The Naturalist’s Notebook; a couple of orioles discover that they can get anything they want at Summer’s Restaurant. But the result isn’t all peace and free love…

Meanwhile, Nate at The Drinking Bird likes June because it makes some birds act less like a rolling stone – including Bachman’s Sparrow that’s apparently sponsored by the RIAA, as it can’t be taped.

Other folks are going with the flow of the seasons, appreciating the phenomenon that June does deliver in quantity – breeding! Liza Lee Miller has Steller’s Jays looking like an avian Gram Parsons in natty blue and black; Owlman has chic bicolor tree swallows that for some reason remind me of Elton John; Clare at The House and Other Arctic Musings has a close encounter with those power chords of the bird world, Peregrine Falcons. Rosina at Nature Notes from Above has a rockin’ nest of American Robins. May the circle be unbroken for these birds!

Some birds are even further along. Wanderin’ Weeta watches fledglings with their mother in the rain. No cake, sorry. If you’d like to join her in fledgling-watching, Drew Weber provides some help and encouragement on how to know the immatures… which will just about get you chicks for free, if not money for nothing.

A different sort of fledgling finds a firm friend in Greg Laden, who believes the children are our future…so they deserve a good bird book

Then again, some birds are still stuck at the trying-to-hook-up stage, and singing the blues (or their own songs) about that. Nancy Castillo aka The Zen Birdfeeder has been moved to post a singles ad for her local Baltimore Oriole. Over at the Greenbelt, we revisit a mockingbird who’s a piper at the gates of dawn.

Other than that, in summertime, what do you do? You might sit and think, with a beverage of your choice. You might think, like Rock Paper Lizard, of playing the name game with ducks. (“Gadwall Gadwall bo-Badwall…” Catchy.) The Bird Ecology Study Group thinks a lot; they pretty near blinded me with science with their article on the Blue-eared Barbet’s Black Pouch.

Others are more footloose. Ben Cruachan takes a walk on the wild side and finds an evocatively-named Powerful Owl. Roger B. at Words and Pictures prefers taking it easy and appreciating the common birds of the vagrant-magnet Isles of Scilly. Over in Pure Florida, they’re doing the funky chicken (and the funky kite, and the funky ibis). Peregrine watches as the rain totally doesn’t fall down on Africa (Namibia to be exact)… and gets some great pictures as a result. Rick Wright picks up Mountain Bluebird, Violet-green Swallow, Western Kingbird and more among the big old jet airliners. Charlie at 10,000 Birds just goes bob-bob-bobbin’ along, with a post that makes me look forward to my own forthcoming travel.

Noflickster posts plenty of delightful birds, and even a lizard, but it’s really just a cunningly-disguised plea for Help!

Some people just prefer to ignore what time it is. The Boreal Bird Blog brings us some science that sounds a bit like it’s from the Year 2525, while J.P. Valentik does the time warp again.

In the end, though, Mick at Sandy Straits and Beyond reminds us that to everything there is a season… tern, tern, tern… and soon enough it will be time to discover once again why they call them “confusing fall warblers.” But before then, you have plenty of time to write, submit, and enjoy more melodic posts for the next I and the Bird over at egretsnest.wordpress.com. Submit them to lizaleemiller AT gmail DOT com or mike AT 10000birds DOT com.

add to del.icio.us :: Add to Blinkslist :: add to furl :: Digg it :: add to ma.gnolia :: Stumble It! :: add to simpy :: seed the vine :: :: :: TailRank :: post to facebook

Before there was the Great Auk, there was the California Condor. This may not be true chronologically (the Great Auk is believed to have diverged from pre-Razorbills and pre-Dovkies in the Pilocene, while the California Condor apparently came into its own in the Pleistocene) but that’s how my life went. I was a devotee of endangered animals before I became a connoisseur of extinct ones, and my idealism has not yet been fully replaced by melancholy. The baby geek who drew California Condors (and black-footed ferrets, another perennial favorite) on her book covers, who was tantalized by the prospect that she still could, maybe, see one some day even though California might as well have been the moon, still is eager for news of them.

Sometimes it’s good news.

Sometimes not so much.

“Seven endangered California condors — about 20 percent of Southern California’s population — have been found with lead poisoning.

The birds started turning up sick about a month ago during random trappings at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge in the San Joaquin Valley.

One of the birds died during treatment at the Los Angeles Zoo and four others are still being treated there. A chick and its mother were sent to the zoo to undergo treatment…”

It really pisses me off, frankly, that this is happening. It isn’t some deep, occult mystery that lead bullets are a problem for condors and other scavengers – it’s been suspected since at least 1992 (a year when I was just starting to transition from drawing California Condors in my notebooks to tracing the Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson logos) and all but certain since 2006, when a team of researchers determined that the isotopes of lead found in released Condors matched the isotopes most commonly found in ammo.

The wheels of the law grind slow, but birds die fast, and the second that they’re dead, that’s it. A ban on using or possessing lead bullets in California Condor territory goes into effect on July 1, but the birds can’t go on a diet until then; they’ll be at risk up until the very day (and for that matter afterwards, as the bullets already in the mouldering, wasted venison that the hunters of California can’t be bothered to track will not magically disappear in compliance. Also, and I say this with all due respect, but my experience in landowner-hunter interactions has not left me with perfect faith in the inclination of “sportsmen” to adhere to the law.)

For that matter, we’ve had an inkling in general that lead was just not a good thing to scatter about the landscape. But could the ban come any sooner? No. In 2005, the California Fish and Game Commission refused to ban lead bullets – a move that, from where I’m sitting, looks like pure pocketbook. It’s not like projectiles made of other metals don’t kill the tasty venison* just as dead – but they cost more.

Yeah, I have to admit, I take this sort of thing personally. Although, as I approach my 30th birthday, a trip to California no longer seems like a lunar expedition – I’ve been a princely total of once – I haven’t seen a California Condor. And I still mean to.

*and I’ll be the first to admit that it is tasty. Apparently the Condors agree!

add to del.icio.us :: Add to Blinkslist :: add to furl :: Digg it :: add to ma.gnolia :: Stumble It! :: add to simpy :: seed the vine :: :: :: TailRank :: post to facebook

If you want in on that sweet, sweet I and the Bird action, get those links in to me (labenc AT gmail DOT com) by Wednesday, June 11!

Sometimes life is just absurdly good to me.

Last year, in a remarkable display of willpower, I refused to count a Blackpoll Warbler that I wasn’t sure was a Blackpoll Warbler, and was rewarded with a clear and definite Blackpoll Warbler the very next time I went out. Some cynical folks might say that that’s because there’s a week or two every year in New York where it would require mad talent not to see a Blackpoll Warbler. But I disclaim this — I say it’s because I’m a fortunate child of Mother Nature, and she rewards my good behavior. How else do you explain the Marsh Wren who – after the hide-and-seek Marsh Wren fiasco at Jamaica Bay – popped up out of the reeds at the Meadowlands this weekend and just sang his little heart out? Well, yes, he wasn’t actually singing for me. He was singing for his rival on the other side of the trail who was singing back at him. Nevertheless.

It was a good day, the first day I ever birded at the Meadowlands. The Inimitable Todd and I went out to visit our friends Matt and Danielle, and Danielle and I went to the park while Matt and the IT noodled with their music equipment. I think Danielle and I got the better end of the deal, because beside the Marsh Wren and many other typical Meadowlands birds – breeding plumage Ruddy Ducks, Great and Snowy Egrets, Tree and Barn Swallows in great abundance, Least Sandpipers and Killdeers, even a bizarrely late pair of Northern Shovelers – we also saw a lovely corn snake nearly two feet long and a muskrat who seemed supremely unconcerned by our presence until I sneezed while Danielle was trying to take a picture. Go me! The only dead body we saw was that of a large fish, and the who place looked and smelled remarkably good, for New Jersey.

On a completely different note, it’s nice to see that I’m not the only person concerned about radically inappropriate bird names.

add to del.icio.us :: Add to Blinkslist :: add to furl :: Digg it :: add to ma.gnolia :: Stumble It! :: add to simpy :: seed the vine :: :: :: TailRank :: post to facebook