June 2009

So here I am, once again at the Olde Homestead. So far I have enjoyed ice cream and cake, mocked tourists at Niagara Falls with a subset of my siblings, forced a separate but overlapping subset of my siblings to read my newly-completed novel manuscript and make comments (my mom and The Inimitable Todd have also been pressed into this task), and watched a baby raccoon behave amusingly.

Oh yes, and I have also looked at birds.

My walkabout today was in aim of finding grassland birds not commonly encountered in the city. Unfortunately, some species that used to be a shoe-in at the Olde Homestead are now absent – notably Bobolinks. Eventually, between the frustration of seeing nothing but Field Sparrows and the discovery that one of my usual routes through the fields is now so overgrown that bushwacking it would invite the fate of becoming a tick buffet, I took to the woods instead.

The woods I took to are quite near the spot where I got my life Hooded Warblers last summer, and given the title of the post, I’m sure you can figure out what ensued. I saw no less than five individuals of that species (given the amount of moving around they were doing, there may have been more) of which two were females, one was a male singing in suitable breeding territory, and one was a male gathering food. Promising, no?

You may wonder why, given this plethora of Hooded Warblers on the very farm where I lived from the age of nothing to the age of 18, how I managed to turn 30 without one on my life list. I wondered too! I have three hypotheses, none of which are mutually exclusive:

1. I’ve changed. As a teenager, I had a big problem (actually, I had lots of big problems, including hormones, my personality, acne, and no driver’s license, but I’m speaking here of problems specifically pertaining to birding): I was intensely allergic to biting insects. A mosquito bite that would give a normal person a single red, itchy bump would give my hives all up and down my arm for several hours. Because of this little issue, I was understandably reluctant to do a lot of birding in damp woods in the spring and summer, which resulted in the entire warbler section of my life list being seriously underpowered until I moved to NYC and discovered the wonder of spring in the Ramble at Central Park. Over time, my immune system has mellowed out and I now face down bugs that I once feared with impunity, allowing me to cover the woodland habitats of the Olde Homestead more thoroughly.

2. The Homestead has changed. Specifically, two things have happened to that particular woodlot to make it more Hooded Warbler-friendly. Several years ago, my family stopped raising livestock, and since then most of the former pasture areas have become overgrown; as a result there are many fewer Brown-headed Cowbirds around. Hooded Warblers are a species that suffers frequently from Cowbird nest parasitism. In addition, a few years back my family did some maple sugaring in that specific area, and in doing so opened up a tractor path into the woods; since then, the path and nearby open areas have acquired the sort of dense shrubby undergrowth that Hoodies favor for nesting.

3. The world has changed. Species expand and contract their ranges all the time. Sometimes this is very dramatic (bears!) and sometimes it’s only noticeable to the close observer (my mother now gets Tufted Titmice at her feeders in the winter, which never happened when I was a kid). While I, like everyone who is paying attention, tend to get very depressed about the fate of birds in general and Neotropical songbirds in particular, the Hooded Warbler is in fact believed to be doing quite well at the moment, even increasing its population (perhaps in part because a lot of other old homesteads beside the Olde Homestead are running more to shrubs than pastures in the northeastern U.S. these days.)

No matter why, though, I was delighted to see these beautiful birds in such abundance, and I hope they’ll grace the Olde Homestead for many years to come.

When you think of bird poaching for the pet trade, your mind might leap to the decimation of parrots in the Neotropics or the smuggling of rarities from Asia. But common songbirds in the heart of a bustling metropolis in one of the world’s great alleged superpowers are not spared from human greed, either.

Via the Prospect Park bird blog, a disturbing report:

“Oddest thing in PP this evening — a couple (in their 50s) trying to capture orioles in a net attached to 20′ long pole.”

Capturing, harming, or possessing any of North America’s native songbirds without a proper permit is, of course, prohibited by the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, along with various state laws. This isn’t the first time this sort of thing has come to light in Brooklyn.

Besides being a tragedy for the birds that are caught (many of which will die rapidly but horribly from improper care) and a massive stressor for those that are chased or disturbed, the illicit bird trade can spread diseases among various bird populations and even result in the introduction of invasive species to new ecosystems.

If you’re in Brooklyn and come across bird poaching or bird smuggling activity, Peter Dorosh and Rob Jett have assembled a helpful list of contact information here.

Anyone in New York State can use the DEC tip line to report harassment or capture of wild birds, as described here.

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So, in the wake of the “Miracle on the Hudson”, my fair city has announced that it will kill up to 2,000 Canada Geese as part of an effort to prevent bird strikes.

Now, on the one hand, these are Canada Geese. There is no shortage. This isn’t the first time that geese have been rounded up from the vicinity of the airports and done away with, and it probably won’t be the last, and the Canada Goose as a species will keep right on truckin’.

On the other hand, these are Canada Geese. There is no shortage, because Canada Geese, while not quite as rampant k-strategists as House Sparrows, are fast-maturing and prolific. This means that when you kill a Canada Goose, you’re merely opening up space for a whole new Canada Goose, potentially creating a vicious cycle where you just end up killing more and more. Controlling habitat is the only possible way to reduce their numbers in a given area permanently, but when it comes to Branta canadensis, habitat means water and grass. Human landscaping habits, from golf courses to public parks to office developments and yes, sometimes even airports, have made the Canada Goose the success it is today.

The news articles I’ve found on the subject hint at some efforts to modify the landscape to discourage the geese, and it may be that the cull is the focus only because dead geese make for better headlines than filling in ditches and pits. But water near airports is a fact of life here, and it’s not like lawns are about to go anywhere. Further, migratory geese like the ones that caused the Hudson crash are not going to be affected by this action at all, since they’re off molting somewhere else.

All I can say is, I sincerely hope that this action is based on sound science and calm discussion that points to it actually improving airport safety, and not just in the short term. It would be a pity for anything, even a Canada Goose, to be killed just so the government can look like it’s Doing Something About It ™. We’ve had quite enough of that already.

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As I’ve mentioned before, one of the advantages of being a birder is that you can use your knowledge and observational skills to add an inappropriate element of dorkiness to nearly any social occasion. I mean, I pointed out birds to my senior prom date during our romantic pre-dance stroll along the Buffalo waterfront. I’ve pointed out birds to co-workers of The Inimitable Todd that I barely know. Hell, I’ve pointed out birds to people at the World Fantasy Convention, an event where it’s hard to conceive of a level of dorkiness that could be considered inappropriate.

So when the IT and I joined a group outing to the Belmont Stakes this weekend, I immediately began pointing out the Barn Swallows. They were very scenic and appropriate, cutting neatly through the air, flashing navy backs and golden bellies. The IT appreciated them with me, but everyone else was more interested in the vodka-spiked Orangina that someone brought (it was very interesting.)

The track itself – which we were fortunate enough to have good views of with spots right up against the fence just past the final turn – featured a number of House Sparrows squabbling in the dirt, enacting their classic ecological minuet with horses, horse droppings, and the insects that are attracted to horse droppings. A single Mockingbird perched on the inside rail and tried a few bars of song. A pair of Red-winged Blackbirds joined the House Sparrows at their racetrack buffet and even venture quite close to the audience for bits of abandoned corn muffin and hot dog bun. My friend Tom retreated to the clubhouse to get out of the sun and came back with a photograph of a print of an archaic chicken for me, so clearly my dorkiness was rubbing off. Eventually, a Canada Goose flew over. All that was missing was a Red-tailed Hawk or two to provide an instructive overview of the types of birds that thrive in a pastoral, human-dominated landscape.

Eventually, also, I decided to take a flutter on the ponies (as the kids would say, if the kids were Damon Runyon). Looking over the racing form, I decided to rely on an old family system that has produced good results for years, a highly secret and complicated formula based on years of livestock experience that… yes, ok. In my family, we pick the horse with the name we like best.

Chocolate Candy seemed promising, as did Mr. Hot Stuff, but in the end I had to go with Summer Bird.

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1. Alas, it’s true: female Blackpoll Warblers mean the end of migration as we know it.

2. But while I was mourning that, I saw two Whip-poor-wills fly over my block. Considering my block, and considering that these were life birds, I was pretty psyched.

3. The Phantom anthology, containing my short story “Invasive Species”, is now available for pre-order. “Invasive Species” is about Starlings. There are a lot of other good stories in it too, like Nick Mamatas’s “The Stain on the Stone” (recommended if you’ve been to Long Island) and Steve Berman’s “Kinder” (recommended for new parents!) but mine is far and away the most avian.