April 2009

More than a fifth of the Whooping Cranes that were present at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge last spring have since died or disappeared, according to a recent survey. While some new cranes have also been born in this time, the flock’s numbers are still down nearly 10%. Signs point to the ongoing drought as a significant cause, since less fresh water means fewer blue crabs and blue crabs are a major part of the cranes’ winter diet.

The issue of drought in the southwestern US is a painful one, and likely to get worse rather than better. Droughts have always occurred in that landscape, often lasting years or even decades. Many fascinating ecosystems have adapted to cope with this, with a combination of delicacy and toughness that favors dynamic equilibrium and weeds out rigidity.

The ecosystem of the modern, suburbanized American is not one of them.

Our culture reacts to drought by drilling deeper, pumping farther, perpetrating further vampirism on already brutalized rivers, and only imposing the weakest constraints on consumption with the maximum whining possible. The idea that there could be any virtue in doing with less anything is dismissed as hair-shirt environmentalism, a radical plan that would reduce us all to living like serfs of the middle ages the second we think seriously about turning off the tap. Giving up your lawn or refraining from growing alfalfa in the desert is somehow an evil distortion of all that’s good and true in a way that, say, the subsidies that made those lawns and alfalfa fields possible in the first place is not. Go figure.

The thing that bugs me the most is this – how many people seem to think that current conditions truly are basically down to immutable laws of reality, when in fact a bit of history shows that our current conditions – our environmental woes, our patterns of highway and housing development, the gigantic clusterfuck that is our food system, even our ideas of what freedom is (the right to choose what color car you have if you can afford a car) and isn’t (the right to not be given asthma for someone else’s profit and convenience) are often down relatively arbitrary bits of politics which are long-forgotten now.

The cranes have changed their diet from blue crabs to fiddler crabs, which can tolerate the drought-related increases in salinity in the marshes better. This isn’t ideal for them, but it’s better than nothing. The way water is used in the American Southwest in particular is also going to change, either because we decided to change it, or when there simply isn’t enough left to do what we’ve been happy-assholing along doing. This change will include inconvenience and real suffering either way, but we can plan it and try to make it fair, or we can scramble through it and let the devil take the hindmost – both in terms of less-privileged people, the poor, minorities, and in terms of the environment. Right now, our cultural attitudes seem to favor the latter.

If there were plenty of Cranes, after all, these fifty dead ones would be replaced, when the drought is over someday, by young birds from other flocks or independent individuals who fed in outlying areas – areas that are now shopping malls, perhaps. If we had let Nature take her course, the right thing to do would be to let her keep on keeping on. But what we have done precludes that option, unless we want to lose the Whooping Cranes today, and maybe tomorrow ourselves – for want of a better word, our souls.

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I recently learned that Postcards From…., the ezine that published my bird-heavy flash fiction “A New Heaven and a New Earth”, has itself become extinct. Since reprint rights have now reverted to me, I’ve decided to make the story available right here, for free, as an early Earth Day gift to my readers.

And here it is.

Long-time followers of this blog will know that the American Woodcock has become a bit of a nemesis bird for me. After my first, phenomenal close encounter with the species, over a decade went with nothing but a single windowstrike and other people’s anecdotes to prove to me that the species even existed.

Still, I lived in hope. Every spring, every park, every muddy patch I got my feet wet in made me think: “Hmmmm…. Woodcock?” After all, like the man said, if you live long enough the bird comes to you.

So it was with wistful regrets for Woodcocks, among other migrants, that I agreed to accompany the Inimitable Todd on a bike trip to Queens to visit friends. It’s difficult to bird with non-birding acquaintances along. Interrupting a conversation to stare over someone’s shoulder and then say “Oh! A Song Sparrow!” is generally considered a faux pas unless you’re with fellow birders.

Still, when we entered the Kissena corridor, and I spotted a male Ring-necked Pheasant just strolling along the lawn near some bushy cover, I hesitated a minute. But hey, Ring-necked Pheasant! I poked the IT and broke up the conversation.

Happily, a male Ring-necked Pheasant is a sufficiently shiny (in both the strictly literal and the metaphorical sense) that my non-birding companions were awed rather than annoyed. We tried to take some pictures (this went poorly) and observed the bird until it retreated to cover.

So I felt I had established some credibility. Still, I was bracing myself to take a social risk. We were headed to the Velodrome, which is a circle for people to bicycle extremely fast around. Ever since my little mishap last fall I have not had much interest in bicycling extremely fast, but the rest of the party did not share this handicap.

Behind/ alongside the Velodrome, there is a brushy area filled with reedy weeds and patches of hardy tree (say it five times fast!) and muck. On our way to the Owl Prowl we had biked by this area, and I’d thought to myself, looks like a place that a migrating Woodcock might chill. So while the others waiting for their turn on the circle, I disappeared into the brush.

Not long after I started down the path, I began to think that I’d made a poor decision. There was standing water and deep mud at several points in the trail, while the weeds and brush were over my head and seemed like a good place for anybody with an antisocial tendency to kill witnesses to lurk. And there weren’t many birds. And most of the birds there were were Robins.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with Robins. Especially this time of year, when their songs, although not all that impressive for a thrush, are one of the better things going in the urban soundscape. Still, as I flushed Robin after Robin (and got stabbed and scratched by spiky weed after spiky weed) I began to wonder if perhaps going around in circles fast mightn’t have been the better option.

Then suddenly I flushed something that wasn’t a Robin.

Two somethings in fact. Oddly enough, my first impression was “That’s a weird bill for a Flicker”, perhaps because of the warm coloration. Then I realized what I was seeing…

The Woodcocks executed a tight spiral and came down nearby, obviously not wanting to foresake this nice wet lonely place for the unforgiving streets of Queens. I tried to get a better view of them with stealth, but only succeeded in flushing them a second time. At least I was able to get better looks as I followed their flight – and appreciate the excellence of their camouflage when they landed.

I this point I decided that enough was enough and that I should let them go about their day. And I went about mine, biking around Queens, spotting Downy Woodpeckers, Ruddy Ducks, and my first-of-season Laughing Gulls along the way. I can only hope that having broken this curse, Woodcocks will be as common for me as Pine Siskins have been the past month… but that might be asking a little much.

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The weather is starting to show flashes of spring-like behavior, for good (60-degree days) and ill (persistent rain, which honestly is not really an ill unless I have to be out in it). So I decided to sneak in a bit of pre-work birding in Central Park.

I was hoping to snag some characteristic early spring migrants, maybe an Eastern Phoebe or even a Woodcock, but no luck there. I did see a lot of winter residents and year-rounders gearing up for spring, including a Red-bellied Woodpecker excavating a nest cavity, singing White-throated Sparrows, Tufted Titmice, Cardinals, and Black-capped Chickadees, and a pair of Robins having a dispute over a promising bit of lawn. I also got nice looks at a single Flicker and three Swamp Sparrows just chilling. Pine Siskins and Juncos are still kicking around, and none of the Goldfinches I saw looked particularly yellow yet. Neither Spring nor Winter describes this moment accurately.

I am trying to take my own advice to appreciate what is instead of chasing after what isn’t, to savor the whole year, but a Pine Warbler would be pretty sweet right now.

On another note, I thought I would follow up on my brief mention of the organic beer that Edgar Allan Poe enjoyed so much in my last post. Beer isn’t as closely associated with birding as coffee (for the very good reasons that birders often need to drive, and need not to have to stop and pee often) but if you do like to kick back with a brew after a long trip or a tough day, there are a plethora of options to look out for the environment while doing so.
The explosion in microbreweries means that most areas of the U.S. can now claim at least a few good beers as local; seeking these out not only reduces your beverage-related carbon footprint, it gives you beer nerd street cred. Organic beer is catching on too. Grist recently posted a pretty good article which reviewed twelve organic beers; besides the ones they name, I enjoy Peak Organic out of Portland Maine and Wolaver’s, a spin-off of Otter Creek Brewing in Vermont. (Eddie favored the Wolaver’s). Non-organic breweries like Dogfish Head out of Delaware experiment from time to time with the use of organic ingredients as well, so keep your eyes peeled for one-offs. Even Anheuser-Busch is in on the act with a division called Green Valley Brewing which produces Wild Hop Lager and Stone Mill Ale.

Besides drinking good beer, you can be environmentally friendly by recycling your cans or (preferably) bottles – or better yet, find out if one of your local suppliers fill growlers. A growler is a resealable jug that holds 32 oz. of liquid; you can drink up, wash it out, and bring it back for new booze as many times as you’d like for a zero waste drinking experience. (If you’re a party-throwing type, kegs offer the same refillable awesomeness.)

So there you go.

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One of the great things about being extinct is that you meet dead people. Some of the finest people in the world are dead. So, when I realized I needed help with this 97th edition of I and the Bird, I turned to a couple of dead dudes.

First I got in touch with Charles Darwin, since his recent bicentennial stirred a great deal of interest in the blogosphere, and he was very generous with his time as always.

“You’re sure your colleagues won’t mind having a blog carnival put together by a 200-year-olds?” he asked.

“Not at all. These guys are very interested in the historical perspective,” I reassured him. “We even got a post looking back to before the blogosphere right here in the submissions.”

But looking over my bulging inbox at the multitude of fine submissions I got for this edition, I realized that this was no two-person task. Who else could I persuade to help us sort through e-mail?

How about someone else who turned 200 this year? Someone else who wrote great works that are still influential today? Someone else who married his first cousin (times were different back then)? Someone else who is inextricably linked to a certain bird, the way Darwin is linked to his finches?

I called Edgar Allan Poe, who agreed so long as I made sure no birds stared in the window at him. Not even ones that are little and shiny and not the least bit Raven-like. I said this would be no problem.

We opened up some beers and set to work.

“What I’m having trouble with,” I told the guys, “is pulling together a coherent theme. A lot of the good themes have been done.”

“Hmmmm…” Chas stroked his beard and scrolled through the submissions. “How about reproduction? It’s a driving force in every bird’s life after all. And you have some great entries on that theme. Like this one about White-breasted Nuthatches building a nest. And these fabulous photos of Painted Storks at their rookery. And this in-depth analysis of a Pileated Woodpecker excavating a nest hole. Two different reports on nesting Red-shouldered Hawks, one from North Carolina and one from Tennessee. Red-tailed Hawks dancing in the sky. And these courting Magnificent Frigatebirds.

“Bah,” said Edgar. “Too depressing. Courting birds make me think of my poor Virginia.”

“She’ll still be there when you get back,” I reassured him. “But it would be hard to make some of these entries fit the theme. Like this one about Patrick’s experience editing NJ Birds. It’s fascinating, but it doesn’t have a thing to do with birds making more birds.”

“And what about this one?” Edgar said. “This is no tender nestling, this is the Red Death!”

“That’s a little harsh,” I told him. “Just because the photos are a bit sad is no reason to overlook the good advice about preventing epidemics at your feeders.”

“Preventing epidemics? Nay. Death holds illimitable dominion over all. Climate change and drought are looming in Tanzania, a third of the bird species in the U.S. are in a significant decline, and even when things are going well there’s always a Cooper’s Hawk waiting to eat you! Or a Sharp-shinned!”

“And you call me depressing,” Charles muttered.

“Death is part of life, but it doesn’t hold illimitable dominion over the California Condor,” I pointed out. “I mean, it’s not doing great, but it’s still there. And there are things we can do to help, like buying shade-grown coffee, or this organic beer that you’re decimating.”

“I was thirsty,” he said, pushing an empty behind his chair with his foot.

“And as for predation, that’s part of Nature’s great web,” Darwin added. “Sometimes it’s even beautiful in its own way. Take this Great Gray Owl, for example.”

“Beauty! Oh, I have loved beauty.” Eddie popped open another beer with a flourish. “Why don’t we make this thing about beauty, instead of loading it with trite themes and dry science? Look at these ghostly sketches of Great Blue Herons. Here are the colors and sounds of Swift Parrots feeding in the bush. And this elegant prose about a bird that wasn’t even there!

“Science isn’t dry!” Charles said grumpily. “Take this entry about a banded Bar-headed Goose from Mongolia. It traveled 5000km to be spotted by a sharp-eyed birder, and now we know a little more about migration. Isn’t that beautiful?”

“No, that yellow band is tacky and vulgar. Now this is beautiful. A dove of the ground. A single bird, lonely and gray and subtle. I should write a poem about it.”

“You should,” Charles said. “And this time maybe give it a meter that doesn’t sound like a small boy riding a rocking horse.”

“Says the guy who spent decades writing about barnacles and earthworms!”

“Gentlemen! We have a deadline! Look at the entries.”

“Perhaps,” Charles said a bit later in a conciliatory tone, “we could structure this edition geographically. We have pretty good coverage. Guans on top of volcanoes in Guatemala, Flame Robins and Sulphur-crested Cockatoos in Australia, Great Grey Shrikes back at home and magnificent flocks of waterfowl here in North America. Migration in Cyprus and this excellent trip report from Sri Lanka.”

“And Monk Parakeets in New Jersey. Not a bad idea,” I said. “But a lot of these posts are about birds closer to home. In some cases, much, much closer.”

“Now this is what I call a bird!” Eddie broke in. “A Pallid Falcon! Can’t you just see it perched on the proud towers of some ancient city by the sea?”

Charles looked over his shoulder. “Oh, that is fascinating case. Once thought to be a separate species but now it’s just considered a color morph of the Peregrine. Perhaps we could do something on the relationships among birds. We have some good stuff on the Wren superfamily here, and also these green morph Pine Siskins, which again look like a different species of bird from their fellow Pine Siskins, but aren’t.”

“That’s not a bad thought. The whole question of what’s a species and what isn’t is a hot topic right now, especially since a lot of birders are making lists of what they’re going to chase next.”

In the distance, my Lab of Ornithology clock sounded the raucous whistle of a House Finch. Edgar jumped about a foot and kicked over his beer bottle.

“Oh no!” Darwin said. “I promised Emma I’d be back half an hour ago.”

But we haven’t even talked about phenological posts! We’ve got birds preparing for spring, birders preparing for spring…”

But Darwin was already halfway to the door. “She’ll be so worried…”

I looked around for Poe. He had crawled under the table and dragged the rest of the six-pack with him. “You promised that there would be no birds in here!”

“It was just the clock…” He ignored me and groped for the bottle opener.

So I guess there’s not going to be an I and the Bird after all. Sorry, guys. Blame the dead dudes. Maybe Nick at Biological Ramblings will have better luck with the next edition – submit by 4/14!

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