Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Female Snowy Owl, Bubo scandiacus.

Image: Bill Ferensen, Seattle.

Even though my blog pseudonym is “GrrlScientist”, some of you originally knew me elsewhere on the internet as “Hedwig the Owl” — a pseudonym that I have used for five years. Because of the release of the last Harry Potter book, which is where the character of Hedwig came from, I am dedicating this edition of the Birds in the News to Hedwig, my original namesake — just because I want to make the point that it’s okay to love a fictional character, even if she is a (mere) bird!

Birds In Science

When it comes to flight speeds, human-made contraptions, such as airplanes, conform to basic aerodynamic scaling rules, which generate predictions based on how much an object weighs and how large its wings are. However, those amazing creatures of flight, the birds, break these rules by flying faster or slower than predicted. How do they do this?

Twenty years after the Chernobyl reactor disaster, which released clouds of radioactive particles in April 1986, the uninhabited forests within the 19 mile (30 kilometer) “exclusion zone” around the disaster site are lush and teeming with wildlife, giving the appearance that nature’s wounds are healing. However, to the trained eyes of the naturalist, something is seriously wrong here.

Chris Sharpe emailed me this following statement about the Recurve-billed Bushbird rediscovery, which I quote in full. I also present Chris’s original 2004 images here, although some of the images will re-appear on this site soon.

People Hurting Birds

The first colony of Little Egret, Egretta garzetta, in the New World, and its home, the last significant red and white mangrove swamp in Barbados, are at risk from deteriorating habitat quality and threatened development. Marshlands within the Graeme Hall Swamp — a Ramsar wetland of international importance which holds the last significant mangrove woodland and largest lake in Barbados — were recently put up for sale for potential “environmentally appropriate commercial operations”. More than 85 bird species have been found at Graeme Hall Swamp, including Caribbean Coot, Fulica caribaea, and the mangroves and environs of the swamp harbor the highest density of the endemic race of Yellow Warbler, Dendroica petechia,, on Barbados. Three other Lesser Antilles endemic species occur (Antillean Crested Hummingbird, Green-throated Carib and Barbados Bullfinch). The permanent wetland is also critical habitat for migrant and vagrant waterbirds.

According to a recent study by the National Audubon Society, the eastern meadowlark population in the United States has plummeted more than 72 percent since 1967. Bobolinks are going missing, as well, and grasshopper and vesper sparrows all but vanished more than 100 years ago. The fact is Massachusetts is losing most of its so-called grassland birds, species that rely on plenty of wide-open spaces without trees. Ipswich amateur ornithologist Jim Berry said what’s being seen nationwide is happening throughout the North Shore, as well. “Eastern meadowlarks are really crashing around here over the last decade,” he said. The bird’s trill was once the signature sound of a New England summer. Now, “I hardly ever hear it anymore.”

Scotland’s seabirds are having a “disastrous” breeding season, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), Scotland. It said mid-season reports had found cliffs, where there should be thousands of birds, almost empty. Parts of Shetland, Orkney and Cape Wrath in the Highlands were among the worst affected. RSPB Scotland said climate change appeared to be disrupting food supply, but added that more research would need to be done. The charity said Scotland’s coastline supported 45% of the European Union’s seabird breeding population. It said that for some areas the season was worse than last year and heading towards being the worst since a “dreadful” 2004 season.

People Helping Birds

Four inches tall and weighing in at half an ounce, the contender is a bark-picker from the Alaka’i Swamp in Hawai’i. Its challengers? Habitat loss, avian disease and non-native mammals. These all have reduced the number of this species to a mere 1,500 world-wide. The Kaua’i creeper, also called the ‘akikiki, has wildlife biologists in its corner, fighting extinction with science. The ‘akikiki, endemic to Kaua’i and found nowhere else in the world, has been listed as a top candidate for the endangered species list since 1994, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service records. “Disease is a major concern we have for the Kaua’i creeper and all the other forest birds on Kaua’i,” said Jay Nelson, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lead biologist.

Rare Bird News

The woodlark, one of England’s most critically endangered birds, is making a dramatic comeback, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) said. In the last 10 years, this species’ numbers have almost doubled from 1,633 breeding pairs in the UK in 1997 to 3,084 pairs, according to the charity’s survey. But conservationists fear woodlarks’ good fortune may be short-lived. They say that undisturbed and untilled farmland where the birds like to nest may begin to disappear as pressure to use land for biofuels increases.

Chicks have been spotted at the Lincolnshire breeding site of one of the UK’s rarest birds. A pair of Montagu’s harriers are breeding at Digby Fen where the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has built a viewing platform. On average 10 to 14 pairs of harriers nest in the UK each year. “The eggs don’t all hatch out at the same time, so there may just be one or two others that haven’t made flight yet, so if we got five that would be fantastic,” said Tony Bladen from the RSPB.

Parrot News

A spectacular Brazilian blue parrot, the Lear’s Macaw, has come back from the brink of extinction with more than 750 birds in the wild counted in a recent survey, wildlife conservationists said on Wednesday. That is more than 10 times the number reported in the wild in the late 1980s, according to the American Bird Conservancy, which attributed the creature’s comeback to protection of its natural habitat in the state of Bahia in northeastern Brazil.

Avian Influenza News

Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccines division of the Sanofi-Aventis Group, announced the completion of construction of its new influenza vaccine manufacturing facility that is expected to more than double its production capacity in the United States. The new facility will further enable Sanofi Pasteur to support public health and protect individuals against both seasonal and pandemic influenza. “As the world’s largest supplier of influenza vaccines, Sanofi Pasteur is committed to addressing current and future public health needs by investing in a robust research and development programme and an ambitious production plan for pandemic preparedness,” said David Williams, Chairman and CEO, Sanofi Pasteur.

New research suggests successful treatment of the H5N1 avian flu virus requires targeting the virus, not the overwhelming immune response it triggers. The study, done in mice genetically engineered to lack critical immune system chemicals called cytokines, found these mice were as likely to die from H5N1 infection as mice armed with an intact immune system. That suggests the activity of the virus, not the immune response it induces, is the main driver of the disease process, said the authors, from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.

This week, H5N1 Avian Influenza has been reported in humans in Egypt and in birds in the Czech Republic.

Streaming Birds

Yep, I am mentioning this again; there is a YouTube-type streaming video source for birders called BirdCinema that you should check out. Already there are plenty of nice videos of wild birds for you to enjoy.

On BirdNote, for the week of July 23, 2007: Monday, Ivan Doig reads about birds from his book, Ride with Me, Mariah Montana; Tuesday, about Bald Eagles nesting in Philadelphia for the first time in 200 years; Wednesday, Western Scrub-Jays plan breakfast, about the research of Caroline Raby et al.; Thursday, “A Little Bird Told Me” — where the phrase came from; Friday, an interview with Gordon Orians about the blackbird’s gape. BirdNotes transport the listener out of the daily grind with two-minute vignettes that incorporate the rich sounds of birds provided by Cornell University and by other sound recordists, with photographs and written stories that illustrate the interesting — and in some cases, truly amazing — abilities of birds. Some of the shows are Pacific Northwest-oriented, but many are of general interest. BirdNote can be heard live, Monday through Friday, 8:58-9:00am in Western Washington state and Southern British Columbia, Canada, on KPLU radio and now also in North Central Washington state on KOHO radio. All episodes are available in the BirdNote archives, both in written transcript and mp3 formats, along with photographs. Listener ideas and comments are welcomed. [rss].

A strike by French workers may be to blame for a lack of flamingo breeding in the marshland of Camargue. [1:22]

Miscellaneous Bird News

Most everyone who enjoys nature has wished for the opportunity to soar like a hawk, but how many folks would like to be able to see like a hummingbird? That opportunity is just what we offer This Week at Hilton Pond. In their photo essay, they simulate what a Ruby-throated Hummingbird might see when it visits the orange tubular flower of a Trumpet Creeper vine. As always, they also include a tally of birds banded and recaptured, plus a few miscellaneous nature notes.

A gull has turned shoplifter by wandering into a shop and helping itself to the chips. The bird walks into the RS McColl newsagents in Aberdeen, UK, when the door is open and makes off with cheese Doritos. The seagull, nicknamed Sam, has now become so popular that locals have started paying for his crisps. Shop assistant Sriaram Nagarajan said: “Everyone is amazed by the seagull. For some reason he only takes that one particular kind of crisps.” [streaming 1:00]. GrrlScientist comment: As a fan of nacho cheese Doritos myself, this is a bird after my own heart. I understand why the bird is a crisp thief, given the “bait” that it is stealing.


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The Fine Print: Thanks to Ian, Jim, Diane, Biosparite, Ellen, Bill, Jeremy and Ron for sending story links. Thanks in advance to Ian for catching my typos; as you probably know by now, I put a few typographical errors in these documents just so Ian can find them! Images are resized and are either linked from the news story that they accompany or they are credited and linked back to the photographer.


  1. #1 The Ridger
    July 23, 2007

    I thought of you while reading HP this weekend … and also while reading about the Lear’s Macaws in the paper this morning.

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