Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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The White-crested Elaenia, Elaenia albiceps, on Texas’ South Padre Island.

Image appears here with the kind permission of the photographer, Erik Breden, who retains the copyright to the image [larger view and More pictures of this bird]. [call notes of this bird, linked from Martin Reid, who recorded it onsite (mp3)].

The really hot bird news in the United States is the presence of a White-crested Elaenia on Texas’ South Padre Island. This is the first time this species has been seen in North America, so there are thousands of birders there documenting this unique moment.


The White-crested Elaenia is a bird in the Tyrannidae family (the tyrant flycatchers). It is found throughout most of South America (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Falkland Islands, Paraguay, Peru, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, and Uruguay). It is not known to occur anywhere in Central America and has never been recorded in North America. Based on Martin’s recorded call notes, the individual in Texas is possibly a “Southern” White-crested Elaenia, Elaenia albiceps chilensis. If so, this bird is a loooooooong way from home, and I’d certainly be interested to know how it got all the way up here. [Unfortunately, ther ehave not been any Elaenia sightings today, Monday, 11 February 2008. More news will be published on this blog when the bird is sighted again]

Birds In Science

Natural flyers like birds, bats and insects outperform man-made aircraft in aerobatics and efficiency. University of Michigan engineers are studying these animals as a step toward designing flapping-wing planes with wingspans smaller than a deck of playing cards. “They’re not only lighter, but also have much more adaptive structures as well as capabilities of integrating aerodynamics with wing and body shapes, which change all the time,” said Wei Shyy, chair of the Aerospace Engineering department and an author of the new book, The Aerodynamics of Low Reynolds Number Flyers. “Natural flyers have outstanding capabilities to remain airborne through wind gusts, rain, and snow.” Shyy photographs birds to help him understand their aerodynamics.

People Hurting Birds

On 16 January, the French oil company Total and the Italian shipping classification society RINA were fined by a Parisian court over their involvement in the huge oil spill that resulted from the sinking of the tanker Erika off the coast of France. The Erika was a 24 year old rusting, Maltese-registered vessel that broke in two during a storm in 1999. The ship leaked 20,000 tons of oil in the sea and affected up to 400 km of the Brittany coast. The oil disaster affected about 150,000 birds and killed 72,000 of them, mainly Common Guillemots (Murres), Uria aalge, Atlantic Puffins, Fratercula arctica, Northern Gannets, Morus bassanus, and Black-legged Kittiwakes, Rissa tridactyla.

Birds Hurting Themselves

It’s a case fit for wildlife CSI: 55 American robins, all dead within a few nearby backyards in Portland, Oregon’s Mount Tabor neighborhood. The leading theory is the birds were fatally intoxicated, said Bob Sallinger of the Audubon Society of Portland’s wildlife care center, where the birds ended up last week. That’s right: The birds drank themselves to death. Not from a bottle, though. The birds’ bellies were chock full of holly berries, skins and seeds. Sallinger isn’t dismissing other explanations yet, but the current thinking is that the birds ate aged and fermented berries that killed them. They may have died from ethanol poisoning directly or dropped into such a stupor that they later died of exposure.

People Helping Birds

A U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service decision to designate 8.6 million acres in four western states as critical habitat for an endangered owl will stand, a federal judge ruled. U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton in Phoenix upheld the designation for parts of Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico for the Mexican spotted owl. The ruling came despite an effort by the Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association to overturn it. “This was a complete victory for the Mexican spotted owl,” Matt Kenna (Ken-AY), attorney for the Western Environmental Law Center, which represented the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. Greenwald said, “The Mexican spotted owl will continue to get the habitat protection it needs to survive and recover. To save endangered species, we have to protect the places they call home.”

The European Commission is taking Malta to the European Court of Justice, regarding the practice of spring hunting and trapping of wild birds, which is illegal under EU law. Every spring since its accession to the EU in 2004, Malta has permitted hunting and trapping of European Turtle-dove, Streptopelia turtur, and Common Quail, Coturnix coturnix, in direct contravention of the EU Birds Directive. “Unfortunately, the Maltese government has missed many opportunities in the past to solve this case and to avoid European wide embarrassment for the country”, said Konstantin Kreiser, EU Policy Manager at BirdLife in Brussels. “Therefore we can only welcome the Commission’s decision to take Malta to Court now.” GrrlScientist comment: It’s about time that the EU did something to slow or hopefully to halt this disgusting and barbaric practice.

A research project to stop vultures from being electrocuted on power lines in the Hartebeespoort Dam area in South Africa was launched by Eskom. Eskom launched the Vulture Enclosure research project in collaboration with the Rhino and Lion Wildlife Conservation non-profit organization to try to reduce bird electrocutions on pylons in certain identified areas. He said the enclosure would serve as a “field laboratory” where researchers would record through what methods would keep the vultures away from the pylons. Vulture Program manager Kerri Wolter said “power lines are one of our major threats causing the ongoing decline of vultures.”

About 80 peacock chicks, artificially bred at the Nehru Zoological Park in India, will soon find a home in the natural wild habit. The Forest Department is likely to take a decision on which part of the State these birds are to be released in the next few days. Nehru Zoo officials took up the exercise of preserve the peacock population, the national bird, using newer breeding procedures with eggs collected from different forest areas. “After hatching we are rearing them here at the zoo premises and preparing them for release in the wild,” said an official. Though not endangered, the number of peacocks in the wild has started to decrease.

Wild Parrot News

In a world first, an Otago, New Zealand film company, ELWIN Productions, is using new High Definition technology to document a remarkable story following the struggle to bring the world’s rarest wild parrot back from the brink of extinction. ‘Code of the Kakapo’, a co-production between ELWIN Productions in Dunedin and Huntaway Homestead Films in Queenstown, is an intimate look at one of the world’s leading conservation programs. “Although male Kakapo have been filmed before, no one has seen or filmed the act of mating. In a first, I have been given access to one of the males during the mating process. And, I’ve been loaned the only camera in the world that can capture this in high definition.”

Howick and Pakuranga residents in New Zealand who enjoy trips to the Hauraki Gulf will soon find themselves with new companions should they venture out to Rakino and Motuihe islands. A bold plan to shift 100 native kakariki (also known as red-crowned parakeets) from Little Barrier Island to new locations will be led by Massey University researcher Luis Ortiz-Catedral. The project will expand the area of the species, which lives on various predator-free islands in the gulf and is “booming” on Little Barrier. Exact numbers of the kakariki population are not known, but estimates range in the thousands. “They don’t seem to be terribly frightened of humans, as they’ve evolved in an environment free of predators,” says Mr Ortiz-Catedral, who has spent four years studying the birds.

H5N1 Avian Influenza News

There is no scientific evidence available proving that migratory birds are responsible for the outbreaks of bird flu in Pakistan or elsewhere in the world, said wildlife experts and virologists. They added, however, that the assumption could not be fully rejected as no scientific study has ever been carried out on migratory birds, at least those who travel to Pakistan once every year from Siberia and Russia. “In fact, it has more to do with bio-security than innocent wild birds; they are also misguiding the efforts for overcoming the epidemic. Without looking into the real causes of the outbreak, simply blaming the migratory birds would jeopardise the already endangered species of these birds” said Rab Nawaz, the Natural Resource Management (NRM) Coordinator of WWF Pakistan.

H5N1 Avian Influenza has been identified in wild birds in Hong Kong and in domestic poultry in Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India and in humans in Indonesia.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of 11 February 2008: Monday, the myth of the Thunderbird; Tuesday, three kingfishers; Wednesday, allopreening in crows; Thursday, Valentine’s lovebirds; Friday, The Great Backyard Bird Count. 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].

Do you have bird videos that you’d like to share with the public? Do you want to watch other people’s bird videos? If so, Bird Cinema is for you!

Birds Cams

There is a BirdCam on the top of the Computer Science building at Cal State, Bakersfield, that is streaming the daily life of a nesting female Great Horned Owl. It also includes a fast motion video link depicting a time lapse of Mama Owl’s 2007 stay.

Miscellaneous Bird News

It’s time to brush up on your bird identification skills and gear up for the 11th annual Great Backyard Bird Count. The bird census will be done by citizen volunteers February 15-18. All you have to do is count birds you see in your yard, local school grounds, local park or wildlife refuge and enter the data online. Observers simply count the highest number of each species they see during at least 15 minutes on one or more of the count days. Last year, participants broke records for the number of birds they reported — 11,082,387 of 613 bird species.

Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne recently announced plans to remove the brown pelican from the Endangered Species List. Kempthorne said the pelican has recovered in large part because of a federal ban on the general use of the pesticide DDT in 1972, after former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, which brought attention to the dangers of unrestricted pesticide use. “Thanks to decades of coordinated efforts on the part of state and federal agencies, conservation organizations and private landowners, the pelican has rebounded to historic levels,” Kempthorne said in a release.

Away down in the swampy bottomlands of Dixie, the most intensive search ever for a bird is gearing up for a make-or-break season. Big reputations egos are riding on the controversial quest for the ivory-billed woodpecker, the most magnificent and most elusive of America’s tree-knockers. “It’s a labor-intensive slog, for the most part. Not an idyllic ramble,” said Martjan Lammertink, project scientist for an ivory-billed research team from Cornell University. He lowered his binoculars after long scrutiny of a nesting cavity carved by a woodpecker beak into the upper trunk of a dead ash tree, finally pronouncing, “Too neat and only 3 1/4 inches — too small.”

A bird more at home in baking Mediterranean heat than an East Coast winter has joined the vanguard of foreign species making the most of global warming to head for Britain. The first glossy ibis of the year has been spotted in Lincolnshire and leading ornithologists believe that the species is here to stay. It is thought to be just a matter of time before the species, along with the spoonbill and the cattle egret, is breeding successfully in Britain. “It looks like it made its way here intentionally,” said Mark Grantham, of the British Trust for Ornithology. “Birds respond to changes in climate and look for new breeding areas.”

And this story includes an amazing picture of a cormorant swallowing a pike that looks to be as long as the bird’s body. Cormorants have a specially hinged beak and an impressively stretchy throat to allow them to swallow large and unwilling prey.

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The Fine Print: Thanks to Ian, Caren, Bill, Ellen, 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!

Comments

  1. #1 Bob O'H
    February 11, 2008

    If so, this bird is a loooooooong way from home, and I’d certainly be interested to know how it got all the way up here.

    So would the Department of Homeland Security.

    Bob

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    February 11, 2008

    Holy Crap! (I’m talking about the White-crested Elaenia) … This beats the Rosey Spoonbill that may or may not have been spotted up in Northern Minnesota two years ago….

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