Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birds in the News 108

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A brown pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, relaxes on a people-watching and photography trip at the Port Aransas Birding Center, Texas.

Image: Scott Lewis [MUCH larger view].


Birds in Science

A £200,000 study into what happens when people hear birdsong is taking off. Researchers at Aberdeen University in Great Britain will spend two years listening to birds to find out how their songs, calls and cries become a part of people’s lives. “Listening to birds: an anthropological approach to bird sounds” has received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The team is keen to hear from anyone interested in birds from across Britain and throughout the world.

People Hurting Birds

Californians are part of a paradox that includes birders throughout the country. More and more scientific reports show that many of the birds we so love are in decline. That includes many of the species that San Francisco has always provided for each winter. Surf scoters have declined by 70 percent over the last three decades; greater scaup, by 50 percent. So if the numbers of American bird enthusiasts are on the rise, why are our birds on the decline? The answer is probably not surprising: Most Americans still do not make the connection between the “stuff” we consume and the impact it has on the environment.

Conservationists are calling for a developer to take down a nearly mile-long glass wall built around a new housing development near the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Huntington Beach after they say at least a dozen birds, including several birds of prey, died when they flew into the structure. In recent weeks, two harrier hawks, a mourning dove, a yellow rumped warbler and a hummingbird, are among those that have died after flying into the see-through wall, conservationists said. “You could not build a better passive bird killer in a better spot than they did here,” said Scott Thomas, conservation director for Sea & Sage Audubon, an Orange County chapter of the Audubon Society. He is offering walking tours of what conservationists have dubbed “the wall of death.”

Nearly three weeks after a container ship spilled toxic fuel into San Francisco Bay, birds continue to show up covered with oil on the shoreline, and wildlife biologists say more than 20,000 may have died in the disaster. About 2,150 birds have been found dead or have died at the bird rescue center since Nov. 7, the day the Cosco Busan crashed into the Bay Bridge and spilled 58,000 gallons of heavy bunker fuel oil. Bird experts figure that for every bird found dead or alive, about five to 10 others go unreported because they sink at sea, get eaten by predators or fly elsewhere. That would put the fatality number at up to 21,500 birds. The oil damage to some of the species is causing special concern among bird biologists, who warn that numbers already are falling. Snowy plovers, marbled murrelets, sanderlings, Clark’s grebes and rhinoceros auklets, among others, all of which have been found covered in oil, are considered species at risk of maintaining healthy populations.

As if oil spills weren’t enough, hundreds of dead or injured seabirds have washed up on the shores of Monterey Bay, California, in recent weeks, and scientists believe a red tide of marine algae is to blame. About 600 birds have been found stranded on beaches in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties since a large rust-colored algal bloom began circulating in the bay about three weeks ago, scientists say. About 70 of the birds have died, while 530 have been taken to wildlife rescue centers, said Michael Ziccardi, director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network. The affected birds include loons, pelicans, western grebes, northern fulmars and surf scoters, said Dave Jessup, a veterinarian with the state Department of Fish and Game. Fish and marine mammals do not appear to be affected.

The African Tourism and Travel Association has become the latest to voice concern over a huge chemical production plant proposed for Tanzania’s Lake Natron, the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK). “Spectacular flocks of flamingos are one of the major attractions for tourists visiting the Great Rift Valley from all over the world. Given the massive contribution ecotourism makes to the East African economy, it just doesn’t make sense to jeopardise these wonderful birds and this very special and unspoilt place. If this development goes ahead who knows what may happen next,” said Nigel Vere Nicholl, chairman of the African Tourism and Travel Association (ATTA).

People Helping Birds

When two Atlantic piping plovers nested on busy Revere Beach, Massachusetts, last summer, scientists knew that the tiny birds indicated something big. The Atlantic piping plover has been on the endangered species list for more than 20 years after dwindling to 722 nesting pairs. Scientists have gone through a difficult, and sometimes contentious, program to restore them, which involved shutting down parts of various beaches for weeks at a time and banning off-road vehicles. In 2006, biologists tracked 1,743 pairs of mating plovers on the Atlantic Coast. And the population appears to be heading toward the 2,000-pair mark that will take the bird off the endangered species list. “It’s a good indication that we’re doing something right; we think it’s a positive sign,” said Rebecca J. Harris, director of the Coastal Waterbird Program at the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

More than 200 years ago, rats jumped ship for Rat Island. The muscular Norway rat climbed ashore on the rugged, uninhabited island in far southwestern Alaska in 1780 after a rodent-infested Japanese ship ran aground. It was the first time rats had made it to Alaska. Since then, Rat Island, as the piece of rock was dubbed by a sea captain in the 1800s, has gone eerily silent. The sounds of birds are missing. That is because the rats feed on eggs, chicks and adult seabirds, which come to the mostly treeless island to nest on the ground or in crevices in the volcanic rock. “As far as bird life, it is a dead zone,” said Steve Ebbert, a biologist at the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, whose 2,500 mostly uninhabited islands include the Aleutian chain, of which Rat Island is a part.

Bird Studies Canada (BirdLife’s Canadian co-Partner) has expressed delight at news that a pair of Kirtland’s Warbler, Dendroica kirtlandii, have bred in Canada — the first in over 60 years. The discovery of the birds — found at a Canadian Forces Base in eastern Ontario — has provided useful data for scientists researching the distribution of this species, listed globally as Near Threatened by BirdLife. “With confirmed nesting in these new locations in 2007, we hope to see the population continue to expand in the years to come.” commented Bird Studies Canada.

One hundred and seventy eight species of birds in the continental U.S. and 39 in Hawaii have the dubious distinction of being on the latest list of America’s most endangered birds. WatchList 2007, a joint effort between Audubon (BirdLife in the US) and American Bird Conservancy, reveals those in greatest need of immediate conservation help. “We call this a ‘WatchList’ but it is really a call to action, because the alternative is to watch these species slip ever closer to oblivion”, said Audubon Bird Conservation Director and co-author of the new list, Greg Butcher. “Agreeing on which species are at the greatest risk is the first step in building the public policies, funding support, innovative conservation initiatives and public commitment needed to save them.”

Forest & Bird (BirdLife in New Zealand) has announced that the Stitchbirds (or hihi), Notiomystis cincta, which were returned to the mainland earlier this year, after an absence of more than a century, have hatched chicks. The fact that the first generation brought to the Waitakere Ranges is breeding successfully is a good sign that they have adapted well to their new home and are thriving,” said Ark in the Park project manager Sandra Jack. “It’s a very exciting stage in what is basically an experiment to see if hihi can thrive in an area with low predator numbers,” she added. “If chicks fledge successfully and survive through to being able to breed themselves, then it’s looking very promising for the future of these rare and special birds. If they can survive at the Ark, they may have a future in other areas on the mainland, where they were once common”.

This is a really interesting online diary describing the release of White-tailed (Sea) Eagles on Scotland’s east coast that you might be interested to read. Includes some lovely images of the birds.

The world’s rarest penguin found only in New Zealand has a new haven thanks to DOC and the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust. A wildlife reserve has been opened in South Otago to protect the bird. The yellow-eyed penguin is so rare that there are fewer than 500 breeding pairs left in the world. Now, 50 hectares of land along a South Otago coastline has been secured to ensure the birds’ future. “I’ll be bringing my grandchildren here to have a look, and know that they’ll come back and bring their children. And they’ll see that some people made a line in the sand for NZ, love this country, and away they went,” says Environment Minister Steve Chadwick.

A new wildlife rescue centre on Torrens Island in Adelaide’s (Australia) north-west is capable of caring for up to 200 injured sea birds or other animals including seals and turtles. Volunteers have built the $400,000 rehabilitation facility over 14 months. Aaron Machado, from the organization, Project Dolphin Safe, says it is important that the public knows about the center. “For those general public that walk anywhere near the ocean or the [Port] River so to speak and happen to come across an injured animal or an entangled animal in fishing tackle, they can give us a call 24 hours a day,” he said.

This is a long essay about the “Bernhard Goetz of birders”, Jim Stevenson. In short, he was caught killing (by shooting) a cat that was killing endangered piping plovers in Texas. He has since received death threats. This is his story.

Birds Helping People

After registering success on beach and wildlife tourism, Kenya is now turning an eye to its priceless birds to shore up revenues. Though part of the wildlife, bird tourism has for long been ignored despite its potential to bring in extra foreign exchange earnings. Currently, there are only 250 ‘birders’ also known as bird watchers, who come to Kenya each year, spending about Sh45 million. But the problem that has left many players desperate for answers is that despite having less bird diversity than Kenya, some African countries have managed to attract more visitors, hence making more money from bird watching. In Nairobi, for example, over 600 bird species have been recorded, more than in any other capital city in the world. But unlike South Africa, for example, Kenya’s potential in bird tourism has not yet been translated into an industry — yet.

Imperiled Bird News

Forty birds in the state of Montana, including the sage grouse, are among the “most imperiled” birds in the United States, conservationists announced. The National Audubon Society this week released “WatchList 2007″ of 178 species of birds in the continental United States and 39 species in Hawaii that the group says are in the greatest danger of extinction and need “immediate conservation help.” Audubon and the America Bird Conservancy compiled the list based on an assessment of the bird’s population size, range size, threats, and population trend.

Parrot News

Yacolt’s (WA state) Monk parrots are in a holding pattern. The tropical birds are no longer under an imminent death sentence, but the town’s parrot advocates must find a new hangout for their feathered friends. And it has to be the right kind of hangout: an enclosure that will keep the birds from flying free, according to Clark Public Utilities. The birds — also known as Quaker parrots — have been weaving their nests around electrical transformers atop power poles in the north-county town. The wickerwork of twigs and sticks is a fire danger and a threat to electrical service, so Clark Public Utilities hired a private electrical contractor, as well as wildlife specialists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to capture the birds and remove the nests from the transformers. “There are bird rescue groups, and we will give them an opportunity,” said Lena Wittler, Clark Public Utilities spokeswoman. “We won’t get in their way, Wittler said, adding that, “We will provide mechanical equipment if they need assistance to place a humane netting box in a tree.” GrrlScientist note: NYC had the same problem with their own population of quaker parrots, and the community managed to solve it by providing nesting platforms for the birds so they stopped building their nests on the power transformers. Considering that it is likely that any future damages caused by this alien species will be minimal, I can’t image why the Yacolt PUD aren’t interested in promoting such a solution there.

Authorities in Cameroon have arrested two Ghanaians for trying to illegally export 500 African Grey parrots out of the central African country to Bahrain, officials said. The parrots, estimated to be worth US$400,000 in all, were thought to have been captured in the rainforest of southeastern Cameroon and would be released back into the wild, according to Ofir Drori, director of the Last Great Ape Organization conservation group which helped catch the alleged smugglers. “I’m happy the government of Cameroon is taking the illegal trade in African Grey parrots quite seriously,” Drori said.

A New York City couple has offered $10,000 for the return of an African gray parrot that disappeared from a pet-sitting business during the Thanksgiving weekend. “Our baby, one of our most important family members, is gone,” Leigh Ann Frankel told the New York Post. “Franklin is my child — every day he wakes up and says, ‘Hi, mommy, how are ya?’ ” GrrlScientist comment: This would NEVER have happened if they had hired me to care for their parrot! I guarantee it!

Avian Zoonotic News

The regional health authority GGD in Nijmegen is further investigating the cases of parrot disease (Psittacosis) which broke out two weeks ago among people who had held stands at a bird show in Weurt, Netherlands, according to a spokesperson for the GGD. The investigation is aimed at gaining more insight into the disease. “We will then know how to take quicker action and how to treat the disease in case of another outbreak,” said the spokesperson. The GGD is approaching the approximately 200 people who visited the bird show on 2,3 and 4 November as part of its investigation.

The avian influenza virus H5N1 could become entrenched in chickens and domestic ducks and geese in parts of Europe, FAO warned. The agency stressed that healthy domestic ducks and geese may transmit the virus to chickens and play a more important role in the persistence of the virus in the region than previously thought. H5N1 surveillance in countries with significant domestic duck and geese populations should be urgently increased. “It seems that a new chapter in the evolution of avian influenza may be unfolding silently in the heart of Europe,” said FAO’s Chief Veterinary Officer, Joseph Domenech. “If it turns out to be true that the H5N1 virus can persist in apparently healthy domestic duck and geese populations, then countries need to urgently reinforce their monitoring and surveillance schemes in all regions with significant duck and geese production for the presence of H5N1.”

A recent study has found that a simple task like washing your hands regularly can help prevent spread of respiratory viruses like influenza and SARS. It also found that physical barriers like wearing masks, gloves and gowns were more effective than drugs, in preventing the viruses. The UK government had announced that it was doubling its stockpile of antiviral medicines in preparation for any future flu pandemic, but researchers believe that these simple, low cost physical measures should be given higher priority in national pandemic preparation.

The initial epidemiologic report on the United Kingdom’s recent outbreaks of H5N1 avian influenza in Suffolk said the source of the virus is unknown but could have been wild birds. The 24-page report from the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), released on the department’s Web site, said the H5N1 virus infected poultry at the Redgrave Farm facility near Diss, then was transmitted by vehicles, people, or other means to a second farm owned by the same company. “Wild birds cannot be ruled out as a source of infection,” DEFRA said in a press release. “To date, there is no evidence of H5N1 infection in the local wild bird population or in GB [Great Britain] as a whole, but the continued surveillance may help clarify the infection status of the wild bird population.”

H5N1 avian influenza has been identified in domestic birds in Romania, Saudi Arabia, and Myanmar and in wild birds in Germany.

Christmas Bird Count and Other Bird Survey News

The 2007 Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) in the United States occur between 14 December 2007 and 5 January 2008. Already, some state CBC schedules are online; already the schedules for Alabama, Illinois, Kansas, New York State, both North and South Carolina (also see here) and Washington State CBC schedules are in the process of being updated for 2007. Be sure to check back on those links because they are still being updated. Of course, I am eager to link to all online CBC schedules so be sure to email your links to me.

The biggest ever wild bird survey to hit Wales will be launched in December. The British Trust for Ornithology is working with birdwatchers in Wales to undertake a new count of every Welsh bird species. Over 250 species will be surveyed, including the 40 red-listed and 121 amber-listed Species of Conservation Concern. The results will set the agenda for bird conservation in the next two decades, helping answer questions such as, have Willow Tit and Hawfinch become extinct in some Welsh counties?

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 3 December 2007: Monday, how birds survive cold winter nights; Tuesday, the varieties of beaks and bills; Wednesday, Birds of Paradise; Thursday, eco-birding, about hiring local guides to help you find birds on your travels; Friday, “As the Crow Flies,” exploring sayings about birds. BirdNotes 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, so you can listen to them anytime, anywhere. Listener ideas and comments are welcomed. [rss].

Scientists in Argentina are taking part in a program designed to save one of the world’s most endangered species — the Andean Condor [BBCNews: 1:41].

Live Allen’s hummingbird nest cam in Irvine California has 2 babies — username and password are both “guest”.

Miscellaneous Bird News

Already this year there’s been a bumper crop of winter finches in the southeastern U.S.; along with these have come good numbers of Red-breasted Nuthatches that are seldom seen locally. In fact, they’ve recently banded all three eastern nuthatches at Hilton Pond Center, providing a nice opportunity to compare these short-tailed bark clingers. For an up-close view of nuthatch similarities and differences, please visit the “This Week at Hilton Pond” photo essay for 15-21 November 2007. As always, the naturalists include lists of birds banded and recaptured, plus some miscellaneous nature notes and a mug shot of a Fox Sparrow.

“Seventy-one Over A” not only could see the cluster of birding telescopes, she could make out the veins in every retina looking through the lenses. If she minded, she didn’t show it. She was too busy scraping the pigeon blood off her beak. The peregrine falcon flicked her beak across the steel girder like someone sharpening a carving knife. Two hundred feet down and north across the Lake Washington Ship Canal in Seattle, 16 birders on a Seattle Audubon Society tour aimed several thousand dollars worth of optical equipment at her perch under the Interstate 5 Ship Canal Bridge. GrrlScientist note: this is agreat story about several of the birds that I left behind when I moved from Seattle to NYC. It’s great to learn that they are doing well.

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The Fine Print: Thanks to Katie, Frederick, Jim, Jeff, Caren, Joseph, Mary Anne, Katie, Bill, Ellen, Jeremy and Ron for sending story links and to Chazz, Brenda, Chuck, Michael, Kent and Urs for updating and maintaining the online state CBC schedules. 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!

Comments

  1. #1 Anglictina
    December 3, 2007

    Really nice ;)

  2. #2 Sven DiMilo
    December 3, 2007

    A glass wall???
    At Bolsa Chica?????
    Unbelievable! Wait til the Least Terns show up.

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