Saturday, December 29, 2007

Sapsucker Woods--here I come!


Wow--tomorrow I'm headed for the Isabella Christmas Bird Count, I'll spend part of New Year's Eve at my mother-in-law's in Port Wing, and then first thing New Year's Day morning off I go, headed for Ithaca! I'm really getting psyched--I just read through The Birds of Sapsucker Woods. It's a gorgeous little book--we should create something similar for Hawk Ridge.

Friday, December 28, 2007

BIGBY map--are YOU on it?


View Larger Map
Sign up to do a Big Green Big Year!

Mute Swans all over again

Today's New York Times has an article by Thomas Kaplan wherein ignorance and sentimentalism trump science and the environment. The Noble, Gentle Swan Is Anything but, to Some makes a hero of Kathryn Burton, president of SaveOurSwans U.S.A., a nonprofit organization in East Lyme, Conn. The article says Mute Swans are "considered an invasive species — a label Ms. Burton contests," but Kaplan doesn't detail either her reasoning or what the basic definition of an invasive exotic species is. The article casts a lot of heat on the issue, but sheds little light.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Why birds and birders don't do drugs

One of my alert friends sent me an essay from the October 5 Guardian Unlimited:

It can conjure up a mood for sex, and might just curb the need for drugs

Therapy at Liverpool hospitals includes a joyous dose of birdsong. Better still, wards should be moved to the aviary

Patients at Liverpool hospitals are to be given doses of birdsong to aid their recovery. Though doctors are uncertain of the effect, they believe that a blast of the dawn chorus is a good medicine.
Read the full story here.

Don't forget to BIGBY!!


Just 5 more days till we can start Bigbying! The BIGBY ("Big Green Big Year") is a new kind of "Big Year." Richard Gregson, BIGBY Coordinator, writes:
This is a low-key, friendly bit of birding rivalry that is not especially original but which seems appropriate in these days of carbon emissions and climate change. If you have ever felt even a tiny bit guilty about driving or flying to see a good bird (or several) why not join us in a year of carbon-neutral birding?

The Big Green Big Year has the acronym BGBY and is therefore pronounced Bigby* ... and it is simply a Big Year in which you only count those species seen within walking or cycling distance of your home or principle place of work. As simple as that, no dashing off to the far corners of the planet burning fossil fuels as you go.

As of this writing, 73 birders have signed up, but Wisconsin and Illinois are not yet represented, nor is Duluth. I signed up to do mine in Ithaca. I'm leaving on the first, but it will take 3 or 4 days to get there. It will be exciting starting a whole new yard list. I'm leaving Duluth with my yard list at 162--I wonder if I'll ever be able to match that in Ithaca?

The BIGBY provides three different plans:
The Walking Bigby

During which you list all species seen in 2008 which have been reached on foot from home or from your regular place of work. If you were traveling by any other means when seen then the bird won’t count for your Bigby. Walking, of course, includes snowshoeing as well

The Self-Propelled Bigby

This will allow you to extend your range a bit and include birds reached by either walking, on bicycle or by canoe .... in winter skis are also usable for this category. Walking Bigby birds can be included.

The Public Transport Bigby

This one has been added by public request ... so long as you travel to your walking/cycling/canoeing site by bus or by rail (but absolutely not by taxi, friend's car or plane) and return in a similar fashion then you are doing a Public Transport Bigby. Walking Bigby and Self-propelled Bigby birds can be included.

Sign up for the 2008 BIGBY here. Get YOUR city on the map!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

How Earth Angel Bird Identification Binoculars Saved Christmas

I produced this segment, How Earth Angel Bird Identification Binoculars Saved Christmas, in 1999, with my son Joe (Rudolph) and his friends Ian Smith (Santa) and Ramiro Figueroa (Blitzen). They were high school seniors at the time, and Pokemon was all the rage.

"In the Age of Noah"

Thomas L. Friedman has a splendid column in today's New York Times: In the Age of Noah. I'm surprised more people don't refer to the Biblical story of Noah to counter all the tired old arguments about how God told Adam he'd have dominion over nature. He says,
For so many years, Indonesians, like many of us, have been taught that life is a trade-off: healthy people with lots of jobs or healthy forests with lots of gibbons — you can’t have both. But the truth is you have to have both. If you don’t, you’ll eventually end up with neither, and then it will be too late even for Noah.


This was the last column by Mr. Friedman until April because he's writing a book about energy and the environment. I'm really looking forward to it. I closed 101 Ways to Help Birds with this:
When I started writing this book in 2003, I knew I faced a daunting task. I’d been working on conservation issues for many years and knew how very many perils face birds in the world today. But as I researched, I learned more about the sheer magnitude of problems I was already aware of — 50 million birds a year at TV towers? A billion birds a year at windows? — and discovered perils I’d never even imagined, large and small, from the dangers of fences for prairie chickens to the toxicity of pennies in ponds. How could I not feel discouraged? Like the children in Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, birds face a mess that is “so big and so deep and so tall” that there seems no realistic way to solve it. No way at all.

Before we were even a nation, working together in a concerted effort we defeated the most powerful empire on earth to win our independence. Remembering that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself and making enormous personal and collective sacrifices, we survived a Depression, destroyed Nazism and defeated the nation that had attacked us at Pearl Harbor. When we set our collective minds and hearts to it, we traveled to the moon, walked upon it, and even hit a couple of golf balls up there. If now we continue to take steps backward from, rather than toward, clean air and water and energy, slide away from protection of the resources that belong to every single one of us, and abandon more and more of the natural habitat that sustains us and that is the rightful heritage of us all, it will not be because we can’t make things better, but because we choose not to.

In the real world, there is no magical Cat who will ride in and clean up our messes for us. I have a few friends who deeply and truly believe that God will step in and somehow save the day, but I grew up hearing that “the Lord helps those who help themselves.” And never can I forget that God directly charged Noah to save every species. This mess is our responsibility, individually and collectively.

What is the solution? You and I are.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

As Cars Hit More Animals...

Today's New York Times includes this story: As Cars Hit More Animals, Toll Rises.

101 Ways to Help Birds includes this:
#60: Drive at the slowest speed that is safe, courteous, and convenient.

During the winter of 2004-05, the largest irruption of northern owls ever recorded brought thousands of Great Gray, Northern Hawk and Boreal Owls into northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Dakota. Birds that had spent their entire lives in northern wilderness suddenly found themselves on country roads and even major thoroughfares and interstate highways. As many as 10 owls could be found on the 20-mile drive along the highway between Duluth and Two Harbors, Minnesota, some right on signs and telephone poles at the edge of the road. And over the season, a great many of these inexperienced birds were killed by cars. Virtually every day in December and January I received phone calls—some days as many as five or six—from distraught people who had collided with an owl or come across one dead on the road. These collisions were a topic of conversation throughout the area, in grocery stores and doctor’s offices. I asked many people whether they thought it would be better for these owls if we all slowed down a bit. Almost without exception, people said yes. But then they added that they thought it would be too dangerous to slow down unless everyone else did. No one wanted to be first to start the new trend.

Great Gray Owls are huge and conspicuous. But just a few months before their winter invasion, there was a fall migration fallout of Yellow-rumped Warblers in Duluth when cool air and warmer land temperatures grounded them all over the city, especially on sun-warmed areas such as roads. So many were being run over that I discovered that several crows and jays had actually learned to sit atop traffic lights in wait, and would swoop down on the dead and dying little birds during red light cycles. There were so many dead birds that the jays and crows I saw weren’t even eating the ones they retrieved—they were stashing them in conifers and under leaves as they do when caching seeds. I found that driving 25 mph was the fastest speed I could go and manage to avoid hitting any of the tiny warblers. It’s easy to drive 25 when we have the road to ourselves; far trickier in traffic. But again, the “I’d drive slower if everyone else did” mindset was at work. Interestingly, when I did slow down to a bird-safe speed during this time, no other drivers showed impatience. Perhaps during migration phenomena of this magnitude, radio and television news commentators could remind their listeners to slow down a bit. Such events are very rare, and usually last only a few days. Couldn’t we humans accommodate birds during such a brief period?

Of course, birds gather on roadsides throughout the year. The United States is crisscrossed by over 8 million lane miles of roads, and 6.3 million of them—over 75 percent—are in rural areas. Early in the morning, many sparrows and thrushes gather on roadsides to pick up grit or insects and worms illuminated by streetlights. So many are killed by cars that many crows, ravens, and jays have learned to take early morning excursions above highways to capitalize on the carnage—some even migrate above highways where they can spot these flattened fast food opportunities as they go. There is evidence that Red-headed Woodpecker numbers have been especially affected by highways because of their habit of swooping at lower heights than other woodpeckers across clearings.

Collisions with automobiles kill 60 to 80 million birds a year, and from thousands to millions more die each year from oil spills, oil field waste pits, and other causes directly related to fueling our cars. According to EPA figures, the optimal highway speed for fuel efficiency in the average car is 55 miles per hour, and fuel efficiency drops dramatically above 60 miles per hour. That’s why the Nixon Administration lowered the speed limit to 55 on interstate highways in the 1970s during a time of severe gas shortages. My hybrid car’s optimal speed for the best mileage is about 40; I consistently average over 60 miles per gallon at that speed. As a finite natural resource, gas we burn up today will simply not be available for our children and grandchildren, and the more gas we use, the more we contribute to the many problems associated with oil extraction, transport, and refining. When we’re in a hurry for a good reason, driving the speed limit is certainly justifiable. But when we drive the slowest speed that’s convenient for us and safe and courteous for other drivers, we protect our air and water, and save gas, money, lives, and wildlife.

Of course, even driving slowly we can’t avoid all collisions with birds and other wildlife, but speed is definitely a major factor in the magnitude of the problem. And when we slow down, not only can we more easily detect and react to animals in the road ahead; we can also notice and enjoy wildlife along roadsides. On a country road, slowing down from 60 to 45 mph makes our drive time 33 percent longer, but can increase both our enjoyment of the trip and the safety of ourselves and wildlife by far greater margins.

Minimizing road kills helps in other ways, as well. Many people who complain about excessively high crow populations never even think about the huge subsidies road killed animals provide crows and other scavengers. And with the extremely tight city, county, and state budgets in many areas, even high crow populations aren’t enough to quickly clear away decaying animals. Pathogens build up quickly in carcasses and can be carried from roadsides to our homes and yards on the feet or bodies of scavengers, including house flies. Preventing roadkills in the first place is in the best interests of all of us.

Other driving habits will also help avoid collisions with deer, birds, and other wildlife. Any time a car is following closely behind you, do what you can to allow it to pass as soon as possible to avoid problems during the critical moments after you spot an animal ahead. Of course, when any car approaches rapidly from behind, it’s safest and most courteous to speed up until you reach a safe place for the car to pass you, or to find a place where you can pull over. And of course, always wear your seat belt: according to several insurance websites, most people injured in car/animal crashes were not wearing their seat belt. Be extra vigilant in early morning and evening hours, the most active time for wildlife on roads. In low light and at night when there is no oncoming traffic, use your high-beam headlights to pick up eye shine at a distance, and as soon as you detect a deer or other animal, slow down and turn on your low-beams so the animal doesn’t “freeze” in the headlights.

If you spot a bird, deer, or other animal in the road ahead of you, what’s the best response? The first thing is to be completely aware of the traffic around you. If you’re on a quiet country road with no cars or motorcycles behind you, brake and stop as far from the animal as possible and beep your horn. .If there is a distant car behind you, pump your brake a few times to alert him to slow down. If you see an oncoming vehicle, flash your lights to alert him that the animal might cross into his lane. Never swerve—you may confuse the animal and you have a bigger chance of losing control of your vehicle or colliding with another vehicle. Look for other animals after one has crossed the road. Deer and many ground-feeding or gallinaceous birds are usually found in pairs or groups.


How the Raven Saved Christmas

How the Raven Saved Christmas

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Force of Nature!!!



Guess who was named the AP Celebrity of the Year, and even called by one of the judges "a force of nature." And when the writers' strike is over, guess who's going to make a little trip (should I say pilgrimmage) to NYC from Ithaca to see the program live?

"An Outrage against Hawks and Falcons"

Okay, I admit it. I love pigeons. Those plain old city pigeons--what we called for generations Rock Doves, that are now Rock Pigeons. The invasive exotic bird that really doesn't belong in North America to begin with. I love them far more than most birders do. It may be because I grew up with them in Chicago. May be because as someone who came from "trailer trash," I identify with birds considered riffraff by most people. Who knows? But I do love pigeons.

My big brother raised pigeons, and for a while he had a bunch of fancy breeds, including rollers. Rollers and tumblers are famous for their peculiar flight, which puts them in serious jeopardy from falcons and accipiters. Maybe even from Red-tailed Hawks. Back when we were growing up, at the peak of DDT usage and after generations of hawk-shooting, my brother's pigeons never encountered hawks. But even he knew not to fly his rollers where a passing raptor might grab them. It was a no-brainer. People messed with the genetics of these poor birds to make their flight so bizarre, and so it was the people's responsibility to protect the birds from nature by keeping them out of nature. My brother didn't like how crippled the birds were compared to the pigeons with more natural flight, so he never bred them or got very much into rollers.

But nowadays some roller-breeders have taken to racing the poor things, and rather than protecting them from nature by keeping them sheltered, have started massacring nature, by shooting or by trapping and killing hawks. They create this pathetic breed of pigeon that can't even fly properly, release it in the natural world to fly in races, and then go out and kill natural predators. Birder's World's cool blog, "Field of View," has a post about this horrible story today: An Outrage Against Hawks and Falcons. I hope the judge throws the book at them.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Yay for Radiohead

Radiohead is doing their best to reduce the carbon they're responsible for:
Earlier this year we asked an Oxford company called Best Foot Forward to look at the carbon and ecological footprints of two recent Radiohead tours, with the aim of reducing our carbon output. Touring is very important to us, a large part of the joy and passion of what we do, and we are committed to finding more responsible ways of doing it.

We asked Best Foot Forward to compare two different kinds of tours we’ve done recently in America: an out of town ‘big gig’/amphitheatre tour, and a smaller theatre tour in city centres.

We wanted to find out which kind of touring has the lowest carbon and environmental impact ‘per person entertained‘. We had lots of information to work out our own carbon footprint, but we had to make some assumptions about the fans’ footprint; how they travel, and how much beer they drink when they get to the show!

This is what we found:

* Fan travel and consumption made up 86% of the Theatre tour and 97% of the Amphitheatre tour.
* Of the band’s touring impact – Travel and energy use accounted for 60% (Theatre tour) and ~40% (Amphitheatre tour)
* International travel accounted for a further 34 – 40% of impacts.


Short of no-one coming to see us, we’d like to share with our fans some ways of reducing this – our early research suggests that how you come to our shows can significantly reduce the tour’s carbon output. To help achieve better results, we’re trying to play as many shows as possible in city centres because of their better transport links. From the Best Foot Forward report, the rough figures below give you an example of how much of a difference you can make.

For the big shows:

* If average car occupancy increased from 2.2 to 3, the whole tour’s overall CO2 output would be reduced by 22%.
* Halving fans flying would reduce overall CO2 consumption by 5%
* And if 10% of car users travelled by bus it would reduce CO2 emissions by 7%


Where we can, we will be reducing our own carbon emissions, starting with sea freighting our gear. It’s 93% more efficient than air freighting, and if we ship our equipment to and from America, we save 47 tonnes of CO2. We will be doing this for touring in 2008, along with travelling as little as possible by air, avoiding chartered flights, and investigating more efficient road and rail transportation.

You can download the whole report here.

We’re aware that this study is tentative and partial, but it’s a start, and we’ll share with you more information as we get it.

Love
Colin

30-million year old hummingbird fossil found--in FRANCE!!


This from today's Independent:

Found in France, a 30 million-year-old hummingbird fossil
By Emily Murphy in Paris
Published: 19 December 2007

The "rediscovery" of a stunningly-preserved 30 million-year-old hummingbird fossil in southern France has deepened the mystery of why these fragile creatures disappeared from Europe and now exist only on the American continent.

The fossil was originally found by an amateur palaeontologist at the end of the 1980s in the Lubéron national park in Provence. It then lay in his private collection for a number of years, unknown to the wider world and as good as undiscovered.

It was finally "re-discovered" after its purchase by another amateur palaeontologist, Nicolas Tourment, a long-time colleague of Antoine Louchart who is an expert on bird fossils.
Read the whole fascinating article here.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

BIGBY--what a great idea!

Here's a cool idea, a Big Green Big Year, or BIGBY for short. On their website they say:
This is a low-key, friendly bit of birding rivalry that is not especially original but which seems appropriate in these days of carbon emissions and climate change. If you have ever felt even a tiny bit guilty about driving or flying to see a good bird (or several) why not join us in a year of carbon-neutral birding?

There are no prizes other than the glory - but we can have fun and keep fit.

The Big Green Big Year has the acronym BGBY and is therefore pronounced Bigby* ... and it is simply a Big Year in which you only count species seen within walking or cycling distance of your home. As simple as that, no dashing off to the far corners of the planet burning fossil fuels as you go.

There are two categories:
The Walking Bigby

During which you list all species seen in 2008 which have been reached on foot from home. If you were traveling by any other means when seen then the bird won’t count for your Bigby.

The Self-Propelled Bigby
This will allow you to extend your range a bit and include birds reached by either walking, on bicycle or by canoe.


Should be enjoyable … start with your garden list (scope here for a Big Year based around birds seen while holding a glass of something alcoholic perhaps?) and simply work outwards. Just make sure that you are always travelling under your own steam.

So contact the organizers by email and sign up! I'll be starting a brand new yard list in Ithaca where I'll be living very close to some quality habitat, and can also count birds when I bike to work!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Ernie Banks: My hero!


What with all the disturbing news in the world of baseball, I'm finding myself thinking about my all-time favorite player, Ernie Banks, who started playing for the Cubs when I was 1 year old. He was the first black player ever to play for Chicago, and he continued with them until he retired from the game in 1971. In one sense, he wasn't exactly repaid for his loyalty--despite 512 home runs (the most ever by a shortstop), 1636 runs batted in, 5 grand slam homers in the 1955 season alone (a record at that time that has only been topped 3 times since), and winning the National League's Most Valuable Player twice, he never got to play in a World Series game, and holds the major league record of most games played without a postseason appearance.

Despite what must have been bitter disappointment that his own greatness didn't leak onto his teammates, Ernie Banks was always and ever loyal to the Cubs, and on the strength of his and my Grandpa's love for the Cubs, I've never wavered in my own attachment to a team that has broken my heart over and over. The last time the Cubs won the World Series was in 1908--this coming year will be the 100th anniversary of that. And the Cubs never even made it into the World Series to lose it since 1945, when Ernie Banks was 14 years old. Oddly enough, 14 just happens to be Ernie Banks' Cubs uniform number.

I saw him play a few games at Wrigley Field, but he retired before I became a birder and before Peregrine Falcons were reintroduced in the East. I saw a Peregrine fly over the ball park once when Russ and I brought our kids to a game in the early 90s. It flew overhead as fast and true as an Ernie Banks grand slam.

Ernie Banks never resorted to "performance enhancing" anything to accomplish all he did. He was, and is, the real deal. I hope he lives long enough to witness the Cubs get into, and win, a World Series. 2008--the 100th anniversary of their last win--would sure be a good year for it.

It's too late for later

Thomas Friedman's New York Times column today is definitely worth reading.
“Later” was a luxury for previous generations and civilizations. It meant that you could paint the same landscape, see the same animals, eat the same fruit, climb the same trees, fish the same rivers, enjoy the same weather or rescue the same endangered species that you did when you were a kid — but just do it later, whenever you got around to it.

If there is one change in global consciousness that seems to have settled in over just the past couple of years, it is the notion that later is over. Later is no longer when you get to do all those same things — just on your time schedule. Later is now when they’re gone — when you won’t get to do any of them ever again, unless there is some radical collective action to mitigate climate change, and maybe even if there is.

Read the whole column here.

Ross's Gull and Duluth CBC


A Ross's Gull turned up in St. Paul yesterday, and was seen and reported by Bruce Fall. I didn't hear about it till I went home for a hot cider break (Russ makes the BEST hot cider, which has been one of the best CBC traditions for my group) and checked my email. This was my 27th Duluth CBC. (Well, I went out on only 26 of them. But I did keep track of my feeder birds in 1983, when my daughter was only 5 days old.) This is also probably my last Duluth CBC. In coming years I'll most likely be in Ithaca at the start of the count period. But I'll be back for break during the time that the Isabella CBC takes place, so that may become my next North Woods CBC tradition.

One of our Duluth groups--Peder Svingen and Tony Hertzel--stuck it out in the Duluth Harbor as long as they could, but then lit out for the territory in time to see the gull. Kim Eckert said this was the third Ross's Gull record for Minnesota. I don't think I'll have a chance to chase it, what with facing both Christmas and a big move. The only one I've ever seen before was in Ashland, Wisconsin back on December 7, 2001. Dick Verch found that one in the Bay.

At last night's Duluth CBC Compilation Dinner, we wished a Ross's Gull had turned up here. Our preliminary overall species total (it may change when we get more results from feeders and final harbor numbers from Peder and Tony) was lackluster--just 54 when our average is 56. My group had a total of only 131 chickadees--not a good showing, considering that this is probably my final Duluth CBC. I'm usually neck-and-neck with Sparky Stensaas, but this time he creamed me, getting over 500.

My group also missed seeing or hearing a single Pileated Woodpecker, though there has been at least one hanging out in my neighborhood for the past few weeks. But overall, the total for the count circle was 31, which wiped out our previous record of 20. The total was 34 cardinals, which was quite a bit below last year's extraordinary 60+, but way above the long-term average.

My group's totals were pretty lackluster even for a lackluster year, but we did make a great robin showing with 21 in a single flock! Janet Riegle and I saw 18 in a single group, but when I went back I saw a total of 21 there. I didn't count the robins we'd seen earlier in 2's and 3's since they may well have been joined in with the flock. I scrutinized them carefully in hopes of picking out a Townsend's Solitaire or something, but no such luck.

We always start out our morning in Pat Thomas's wonderful backyard. It's a certified Backyard Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation and also a Monarch stopover. Pat gave us 3 Ruffed Grouse and all 7 of our cardinals for the day. She also showed us the cavity where Pileated Woodpeckers had nested this past year--right now it's serving as a squirrel apartment. It's sad and disturbing that the lovely woods behind her place are supposed to be developed for a medical center expansion, when there's plenty of degraded habitat elsewhere that could have been used for this.

The saddest news of the day: not a single Evening Grosbeak. The happiest, in addition to the record number of Pileateds, were the TWO Three-toed Woodpeckers that turned up, the first time this species has been tallied on our count.

On the 30th, I'll be going on the Isabella Christmas Bird Count, the one count in America that is GUARANTEED--to not have a single invasive exotic species. Last year driving home from that count I came as close to a moose as I've ever been--it was millimeters from my front bumper, and I could see the steam from its nostrils as it galumphed past. Christmas Bird Counts are not only important for the data they provide about bird populations, and not only fun traditions--they also give us splendid memories that last a lifetime.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Prometheus Keeps a Diary


Oh, dear. My "friend" Lisa sent this to me. I almost died laughing. I would have been very mad at Lisa if I did--then I couldn't go to Cornell.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Cornell Lab, Here I Come!!

Oh, my. I don't even know where to begin except to just blurt it out--yesterday I was officially offered, and instantly accepted, the job of my dreams. Starting January 7, I'm going to be writing and editing for the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology!!

The Lab has been my personal Mecca since I started birding in 1975. To identify my first bird, I used two field guides but since this bird was so close in appearance to another species, I also had to listen to a bird record at the Michigan State University library--and that record had been produced at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. So the Lab is directly responsible for my ability to distinguish between a Black-capped and a Carolina Chickadee. I soon went out and bought my own copy of that bird record and got to listen to a whole huge variety of bird sounds, including that of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Since that bird was so exceptionally rare, I researched how they'd gotten the recording--it was done by Dr. Arthur A. Allen of...the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

It seems like everywhere I looked in the entire field of ornithology, the Cornell Lab had been in one way or another involved, often providing the very groundwork. They've done amazing collaborations--with the American Ornithologists' Union and the Academy of Natural Sciences, they produced the Birds of North America series--originally a huge printed collection but now online, with many more features such as videos and sound recordings, on the Lab's website. They have the world's largest collection of animal sound recordings (and video!) housed at the Lab's Macaulay Library. Their wonderful array of citizen science programs includes Project FeederWatch, Urban Bird Studies, PigeonWatch, the House Finch Disease Survey, the Birdhouse Network, the Birds in Forested Landscapes project, the Golden-winged Warbler Atlas Project... the list goes on and on. With Audubon they sponsor the Great Backyard Bird Count. And Cornell and Audubon also collaborated in creating eBird, THE place for people to post sightings of birds so scientists, conservationists, and anyone else can see exactly how each species' distribution looks in real time or over a longer period of time.

And the Lab is at the forefront in some critical areas near and dear to my heart. They have a fabulous education program for kids, BirdSleuth!, which evolved from what was Classroom FeederWatch. The name of their All About Birds website pretty much says it all--that's a great place for kids as well as adults to learn more about birds. It has photos, video, and sound recordings for virtually every North American species, is constantly being updated, and so is a valuable resource for educators as well as everyone else. The Lab offers a Home Study Course (which I've personally taken) which is as in-depth as most university ornithology courses, with superb learning materials. And they also provide a fabulous Nature Sound Recording Workshop (again, something I've personally attended), where you'll not only learn how to record birds in the field from some of the finest field recordists in the world, but get to record and see, up close and personal, White-headed Woodpeckers and other wonderful species of the Sierra Nevadas.

This is only scratching the surface of the many conservation, education, citizen science, and research projects and programs the Lab offers. Every one of my experiences with the Lab has left me in awe, not just of the quality of their work but also of the heartfelt eagerness to make the best of ornithology accessible to the world at large, and of the warm sense of camaraderie the whole Cornell team displays. The reason they get so very much accomplished of such a high quality is that they are all so committed to the Lab's mission, and work as such a cohesive team.

When I started producing "For the Birds" in 1986, I was using recordings produced at the Lab. At some point after a year or so, it occurred to me that I probably should have asked for permission to use them, so I sent a cassette tape of some programs to the Lab to ask about it. And who should call me on the telephone one evening but Dr. Charles Walcott, the director of the Lab! He was so warm and gracious, assuring me that yeah, I probably should have asked, but when he was a college student, he himself had produced some programs using recordings from others and he hadn't thought about getting permission, either. He said there was no problem using them--he was delighted the Lab's collection was being used this way. If I hadn't already been in love with the Lab, that certainly sealed it!

So I'm facing this new job with a sense of awe as well as elation. I'm going to do everything in my power to justify their hiring me.

Sam Cook at the Duluth News Tribune called and interviewed me over the phone last night (after a bit of prodding from someone at KUMD pretending to be me)--that article is here. And Lisa Johnson interviewed me on KUMD this morning. I'll post a link to that as soon as I can.

(On edit--here's the KUMD program today. Scroll down to the "On Demand.")

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Trying to find a REAL solution to malaria -- vaccines


Today's New York Times has an article about a research laboratory trying to find a real, genuinely effective way of controlling or eliminating malaria. Not only would finding a real cure solve one of the world's worst medical scourges (some people estimate that malaria has killed more than half the people who have died since the start of the human race!) but it would also defuse the revisionists who still insist that widespread environmental use of DDT would have ended malaria long ago. Read The Soul of a New Vaccine.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Holiday giving

Here's a lovely essay about holiday traditions and giving--and NOT giving--from This Green Life.

By the way, Amazon just got a shipment of my book in Friday, and are out again already! The book zoomed up the chart, to #44,161, and #6 in books about endangered species. But they're out again. They still have my other two books in stock, but it's tricky to find "Sharing the Wonder of Birds with Kids" because they have it listed twice, and one of them isn't sold by Amazon. So if you want that one from them, you need to go here.

Update--they got two more copies of 101 Ways. It's really important for authors to not spend too much time looking up their own books on Amazon. Every hour the ranking changes--by a LOT.

"Planetary emergency"


Read the New York Times article: "Gore urges bold moves in Nobel speech"

Seabird Die-off

The Telegraph is reporting a massive die-off of seabirds in the North Sea and upper Atlantic. This includes thousands of Razorbills and also huge numbers of Atlantic Puffins. You can read the Telegraph story here.

The birds, all adults, had obviously died of starvation--their bodies were extremely emaciated. The article didn't get into what these birds eat, but Gail Mackiernan, the retired Assistant Director (& head of the research program) of U. of Maryland Sea Grant College, posted on BirdChat:
Being a marine biologist, I thought that it was odd that the newspaper article did not really speak to the issue of commercial over-fishing of launce (sand-eel), capelin and other forage fish in the North Sea and No. Atlantic. We have a similar issue in the USA, with overfishing of menhaden leading to a cascade of problems for predatory fish and birds, and there are other examples where commercial fishing is affecting seabirds, marine mammals and fish.

Ecosystem effects are usually not considered when fish quotas are set, even though in some cases the trophic levels affected (such as predatory fish species) are far more valauble commercially that the industrial uses to which the forage fish are put. No logic, no cause-and-effect, no clear thinking at all...

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Pigeon racing

There's a great article in today's New York Times about pigeon racing in the city. Things are going to be different now that Frank Viola, one of the most prominent pigeon racers in New York history, died this fall.

Ross Bagdasarian


When I was little, I fell in love with Ross Bagdasarian. He was the songwriter who came up with "Witch Doctor" and Alvin and the Chipmunks, but had a lovely singing voice in his own right and also played the role of the piano player/songwriter in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window. He was handsome and talented--just the right choice for a teenage crush. He was a World War II vet--he'd been stationed in Seville, leading to his choice of "David Seville" as his singing name.

Tragically, he died in early 1972, when he was only 52. Now that there is going to be a Chipmunks movie, people are finally acknowledging what a wonderful and creative man Ross Bagdasarian was. There was a story about him this morning on CBS Sunday Morning. You can learn more about him at Wikipedia and IMDB.

Mike McDowell's close encounter of the shrike kind

Sometimes when I read birding stories recounting thrilling experiences other birders have had with birds, I feel uneasy. Birds have far better vision and hearing than we do, so it's pretty much impossible to watch them while they're completely unaware of our presence, except in rare instances when the bird is so focused on a rival, prey item, or potential predator that it really doesn't notice observers. But it IS possible to be so unobtrusive that birds get used to our presence and continue with their normal activities even in our presence. Stories about these encounters are my favorite birding stories.

Mike McDowell, my favorite digiscoper, understands how to approach birds, and he's spent so much time at his favorite birding spot, Pheasant Branch, that the birds probably consider him part of the scenery. He had a thrilling encounter with a Northern Shrike this weekend that he writes about in his blog. It's worth a read!!

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Conserve Water!


Bill Hilton Jr. had a great photo essay on his Hilton Pond website this week, about water conservation. I wrote a lot about water conservation in 101 Ways to Help Birds--I posted the section about water conservation on my blog here.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Eagley day


I had to drive to Spooner, Wisconsin, this morning to tape some Northland Adventures segments. Driving up, I saw a couple of Bald Eagles. Then I took another route home, stopping in Port Wing along the way, and got my eagle tally up to 8. Then en route from there, added another 2 for a total of 10. In every case there was a gorgeous adult sitting in a tree or circling in the blue sky, and a mangled deer carcass on the roadside nearby.

I don't think I've ever seen a prettier sunset. I was driving home and there was black ice and/or snowpack for most of the length of "Lucky" Highway 13, making it just plain seem like a bad thought to pull over. But my eyes feasted on it!

Amazon finally got in more copies of my book, and they're already running out again! That's a happy thought, but I hope not too many people are giving it as Christmas gifts. It's a very good book--don't get me wrong! But Christmas morning is the time for opening happy presents. I had nightmares about all the people who were going to open my first book for Christmas. They'd come downstairs filled with eager anticipation, hoping for the latest Paul Simon CD or some other happy and wonderful and beautiful thing, rip off the wrapping paper and find...my book. My nightmares were filled with sad, disappointed faces, and For the Birds was my HAPPY book! 101 Ways to Help Birds is more a New Year's resolution kind of thing than a Christmas morning one. But it does have a lot of timely information--every time I hear a news story about water shortages or the energy situation, I think, "Hey- Most of that was in my book!"

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Dave Benson's new book!

We got a lot more snow today, but I had an errand out near the airport, and since I was out that way anyway, I stopped at Wild Birds Unlimited to get more sunflower seeds. And what should be sitting right there on the counter but Dave Benson's excellent new book, Owls of the North: A Naturalist's Handbook, published by Sparky Stensaas's Stone Ridge Press, in the new Bird Nerd Natural History series. It's a small book filled with wonderful photos and a wealth of information about all the owls we'd find in Minnesota or anywhere else in the upper Midwest or northeastern states and provinces.

Dave Benson is a wonderful naturalist who's been studying and talking about owls for almost as long as I have. A couple of the points he makes are a little different from my own understanding--I learned in Gary Duke's avian physiology class that owls do in fact have plenty of cone cells in their eyes--not as many (relative to rod cells) as many diurnal birds do, but plenty enough to allow fairly decent color discrimination. (In the human eye, we have about 120 million rods and only about 6 million cones.) According to this 1987 paper in The Condor, a Great Horned Owl's photoreceptors are 7 - 8% cones, and the authors suggest that although color vision isn't acute, it may "broaden the spectral window through which visual information may be gained; this might be particularly useful during the occasional daylight hunting forays of this species."

Also, banders are discovering that Saw-whet Owl feathers have wonderful patterns when they look at them with a black light. If the feathers have "color" in ultraviolet wavelengths, these owls almost definitely are able to discern it, which may allow them to recognize sex and even discriminate among individual Saw-whets.

Dave discounts one possible function of owl feather tufts helping owls to appear a bit more catlike, but that happens to be a theory I think makes a lot of sense. The times I've seen Great Horned Owls on the ground, feeding on rabbits, they DO have a very fierce, catlike appearance that must seem rather fearsome to an approaching fox--it might just give the owl an extra few seconds to finish swallowing and take off without being eaten. Of course, as Dave notes, looking like a small mammal could be dangerous for any bird, but even large predators seldom mess with cats without taking at least some self-protective measures, so during the vulnerable moments when an owl is on the ground grabbing and eating its prey, there might well be some benefit to holding those tufts like a cat's ears. Indeed, when a cat rears to attack, it pulls its ears back in almost the exact same way as my education screech owl Archimedes pulls his feather tufts back whenever I have to grab him to put his jesses on. As Dave notes where he discusses the defense posture, owls also hiss when they're approached, another catlike behavior, and Dave notes that some other Great Horned Owl vocalizations have made him think an owl was a cat.

Dave quotes a researcher who found that one tame Long-eared Owl taloned anyone who touched its tufts. My own Archimedes doesn't seem to react one way or another when I touch his feather tufts--he seems to like any part of his head stroked. I've read many sources suggesting that the feather tufts have a sensory function, and my own feeling is that this is almost certainly true, but is only one of several possible functions for those tufts. Like Dave says, though, nobody knows for sure.

Dave covers a lot of owl basics and presents a lot of solid information about each species, and even where his opinion about an issue is different from mine, there is plenty of food for thought, so the book is well worth $16.95. It's available in bookstores and online.

The photo on page 65, which Sparky took of a roosting Saw-whet Owl, is apparently of the exact same bird I photographed in Two Harbors a couple of years ago, resting on the exact same branch. It was a hotline bird, so dozens of birders saw it. Sparky is taller than me so his angle is slightly different, but it was really cool to see this particular bird in this wonderful book, which would fit perfectly in a Christmas stocking.

Monday, December 3, 2007

"Sublimely silly"


Uh oh. Amazon is all out of all three of my books! It was so cool to have a little plug for 101 Ways to Help Birds on Newsweek's blog, but it apparently led to a run on the few copies Amazon tries to keep in stock, and brought my book all the way up the charts to #97,871 in book sales. At this moment it's also #22 in "Endangered Species Books," and is not in the top hundred bird books. Oh, well. I wouldn't know how to deal with having a best seller, or even a not-too-bad seller, though it does mystify me why more people aren't interested in it, since it really does cover a huge spectrum of issues facing birds. Virtually every newspaper has been carrying stories about the declining numbers of birds with the release of Audubon's 2007 Watch List, but my book isn't on any of the writers' radar screens even though it covers every issue I've read about in those articles.

But Cafe Press still is carrying a CD I put together several years ago, "For the Boids," which is filled with radio programs I produced for various April Fools' Days and other unfathomable reasons. You can pay $15 for the CD, which sports a photo of me taken when I was four on the cover--the Beanie Baby Blue Jays were Photoshopped in. Or you can listen to most of the programs for free (I've never been much of a capitalist, have I?) on my webpage (scroll down to "From the Archives"). My all time favorite is "Where the Boids Are," in which two college students drive up the shore to Grand Marais for spring break to be where the boids are.

Birding in Sri Lanka


Now this is a cool blog, from a place I have absolutely no experience at. Amilo Salgado leads birding tours to Sri Lanka, and fills his blog with wonderful photos (like that Brown Hawk Owl above) of rare birds, snakes, and other cool subjects, along with stories that make me feel like I'm there right along with his clients and himself in this wonderfully exotic place. No way would I ever play Scrabble with him, but my daughter would relish a chance to compete with him on that score! Me, I'd just like to go birding with him.

A different Newsweek article

A few weeks ago, a Newsweek reporter called me about a bird-feeding article she was putting together. I forgot all about it, but here it is. Pretty brief, and didn't get into a lot of stuff we talked about, but it's reasonably accurate.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Bell Museum, please reconsider!

Oh, my. Birdchick posted on her blog that the Bell Museum of Natural History is going to be moving to a new building--a literally new one. They showed off the plans for the new construction at the MOU Paper Session yesterday. But they developed a design that has a huge window--a potential bird disaster. I don't know if this is part of their plan to get new specimens for the museum (I'm being facetious here, but Bob Zink MUST realize that windows are one of the main sources of bird specimens) or they're trying to save money on construction costs (glass is cheaper than many building materials). I sure hope they reconsider. Read the details at Birdchick's blog. If they do keep these plans despite the obvious irony of a natural history facility killing potentially thousands of birds, I hope they develop effective screening. Several facilities did just this as shown on my safe windows page.

Varied Thrush!

My good friend Alison Clarke looked out her window Wednesday morning to see a gorgeous male Varied Thrush! I was getting ready for my flight so couldn't run over to see it, but the cooperative bird has been sticking around in her neighborhood, visiting her feeder throughout the days ever since. So this morning I went over to watch the bird in luxury. I sat there eating delicious, fresh-baked cranberry bread and drinking coffee while feasting my eyes. The bird came several times while I was there.

The new snow is deep, it was murky and dark, and I photographed him from inside, through a plastic-covered (winterized) window, so my photos aren't nearly as good as the bird is beautiful. If I get a sunny day this week, I'll go back and photograph him from outside. If you're in Duluth, you can follow the hotline directions to find it.

As with most species, you can read about the Varied Thrush and hear its sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds website, at the Varied Thrush entry.

"We are the people we have been waiting for"

Thomas Friedman has a wonderful, hopeful column today about global warming, or as he and others are starting to call it, "global weirding." As he notes:
And sweet-sounding “global warming” doesn’t really capture what’s likely to happen. I prefer the term “global weirding,” coined by Hunter Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, because the rise in average global temperature is going to lead to all sorts of crazy things — from hotter heat spells and droughts in some places, to colder cold spells and more violent storms, more intense flooding, forest fires and species loss in other places.
He writes about meeting with MIT students:
I got together with three engineering undergrads who helped launch the Vehicle Design Summit — a global, open-source, collaborative effort, managed by M.I.T. students, that has 25 college teams around the world, including in India and China, working together to build a plug-in electric hybrid within three years. Each team contributes a different set of parts or designs. I thought writing for my college newspaper was cool. These kids are building a hyper-efficient car, which, they hope, “will demonstrate a 95 percent reduction in embodied energy, materials and toxicity from cradle to cradle to grave” and provide “200 m.p.g. energy equivalency or better.” The Linux of cars!

They’re not waiting for G.M. Their goal, they explain on their Web site — vds.mit.edu — is “to identify the key characteristics of events like the race to the moon and then transpose this energy, passion, focus and urgency” on catalyzing a global team to build a clean car. I just love their tag line. It’s what gives me hope:

“We are the people we have been waiting for.”

Read the whole article.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Great NY Times article

Here's an indepth article about the controversy surrounding the Jim Stevenson case. Kill the Cat that Kills the Bird?