Archive for the ‘birding’ Category


I returned from Antarctica nearly two months ago to find it considerably busier ’round these northern parts. Among the things that almost slipped past:

Dumping iron in the ocean to get carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. It’s premature to do it commercially, and it may never turn out to be a good idea. But we could learn a lot about how the ocean works if we do some more experiments in that direction. That’s the gist of a special issue of Oceanus on the subject, in which I got to write five of the articles. Also covered: It’s become quite common to ridicule the idea for various appalling but unspecified side-effects; here are some details. Also, could it ever work? Why are economists and carbon traders interested? And what makes us think it might work in the first place?

Apparently, way more water has been dragged into the bowels of the Earth under Costa Rica than anyone ever thought before. Time was you could just dig up a handful of olivine crystals and spin the story any way you wanted – but that was before Jenn Wade got ahold of some clinopyroxenes and squeezed from them the truth. The verdict: Throw away your boron, your beryllium. Cast out your futile barium/lanthanum assays. Stop clinging to the illusions conjured in your strontium-neodymium dens. There are two kinds of magma beneath Costa Rica, and I, for one, am not going to pretend otherwise any longer. Questions? Ask the magmatic maverick herself (and check out her dancing skills) at Danger Bay.

There’s a fascinating story about whether chickens came to South America in Spanish galleons, via the Atlantic, or Polynesian outriggers, via the Pacific, here. (Thanks to El Nuthatchenyo for the tip.)

And thanks to the New York Times for keeping tabs on kimchee‘s inexorable expansion around the globe… and into outer space.

p.s. Hands up who wants to hear the best parts from Bleak House?

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Nuthatch Pipes Up

It’s been several months since anyone’s heard a peep out of the Contemplative Nuthatch, who you may remember in connection with a Brazilian Nuthatch Snow Party last year.

He’s back with a story and trademark nice photos of a red-tailed hawk that’s been causing trouble in his Ithaca environs. If you’re squeamish, avert your eyes from the bottom half of the post. But be sure to watch the video, a quick half-minute of crows letting the red-tail know it’s not welcome. I love how they cluster mildly around the hawk until it gets nervous enough to leave. Then as soon as it spreads its wings, the crows pounce.

(By the way, despite those pale patches on the wings, these are not oversized lark buntings – they’re just wing-marked crows under study by Cornell ornithologists.)

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Google for Twitchers


You’ve got to start back to blogging sometime, I guess. Here’s one for all you plugged-in readers who know what a twitcher is.***

Someone at eBird had the great idea to feed rare-bird sightings into a Google widget. Now you can get a fresh list, right down to the last harlequin duck and wandering tattler, every time you check your e-mail tally/Fox News headlines/stock prices. You even get a link to a Google map of the bird’s last known address.

Future versions of the widget might improve the text wrapping or make the regional selections more versatile, but this is a nice piece of software that ought to be lapped up by hordes of avid listers. Get it here.

***A twitcher is a kind of birdwatcher with an unwavering focus on rare birds. Your typical twitcher keeps a variety of lists, including all birds seen in a lifetime, in a year, on a continent, country, state, county, backyard, etc. In pursuit of the longest lists possible, twitchers are willing to travel great distances when birds show up in unexpected places.
As with most addictions, it’s not easy to tell when you have a problem, but one rule of thumb is that if you are willing to burn more than one tank of gas specifically to pick up a rarity, you might be a twitcher.

“Twitch” also works as a verb, as: “Last winter he spent MLK weekend twitching hawk owls. Drove nonstop from Cincinnati to Minnesota through the night. Lived off diet Cherry Coke and Pecan Sandies the whole time.”

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Stood Up By Shearwaters

flotation_toy_warning.jpg The Hutton’s shearwaters that circled our albatross boat nest in only one valley in the  world – up in the mountains that loom 8,000 feet over Kaikoura. Each evening, thousands of adults raft up on the water just below the peninsula’s cliffs. Sometime after dark, they fly up a particular grassy swale toward the mountains. Or so they say.

Witnessing such a flight seemed like as good a way as any to spend the first night of the year. I lounged around the Lazy Shag hostel most of the day reading Bleak House and plotting my evening. Truth be told, my shearwater plans centered around one of the immense white-paper parcels of fish and chips I kept seeing carried out of the local takeaway. Every available surface around town seemed to have fish and chips unwrapped on it, surrounded by giddy throngs licking ketchup from their fingers.

So at 7:30 I started into town, leaving time to pick up my fish and chips and make the hour’s walk out to the cliffs. Adversity struck almost immediately: Oh! too bad! – it’s New Year’s Day. The chip shops all closed at 4:00!

In the end I found myself crouched on a bench, leaning into a cold easterly wind, eating green olives and nursing a bottle of cheap Australian shiraz. Colder than I had ever been in Antarctica. The evening skies were clear of both clouds and shearwaters. I dejectedly opened a bag of lamb and mint flavored potato chips. Not even in New Zealand is this a good taste combination.

Eventually, I moved downhill and laid in the warm grass behind a windbreak.  Stars spread out across the dark sky, providing enough of a backdrop to detect any flying objects, of which I noticed numerous satellites, a couple of shooting stars but not a single shearwater. Finally, I packed my things and walked home in the darkness. Above me were Orion, Taurus, the Pleiades, and Canis Major. It took me a while to recognize them – they were all upside down.

This week I decided to give shearwaters another chance. I was on Stewart Island, or Rakiura, land of the glowing skies, as the Maori called it. Millions of sooty shearwaters nest here, 40 miles out into the Southern Ocean from the South Island. In the charming mythology of the Maori, the South Island is the canoe piloted by the god Maui on a fishing expedition. The North Island is the great fish that Maui caught, so big he had to brace his foot on the Kaikoura peninsula to pull it in, and yell at his crew to throw out an anchor – Rakiura – to slow the boat. (Afterward, some of his crew, including Aoraki, went ashore and became Mt. Cook and the  rest of the Southern Alps. Maui directed one of his sons to give the southern landscape some character, so he set to work with a pickaxe and made Fiordland.)

Anyway, on Monday night I armed myself with some crackers and tuna and headed out to Ackers Point. Seventy feet below the trail, little blue penguins stuck their heads out of the water and made little caw-quacks at each other. The hillsides were covered with dense, twisted trunks topped with red flowers like upturned shaving brushes. Parrots flew among them. Underneath were tree ferns a bit taller than me. The vegetation was too tropical for its latitude; it was as if a cruise ship had woken up one day in the Roaring Forties. Everyone was huddled together on the decks, arms drawn close in against their Hawaiian shirts, wondering what the hell was going on.

A little after dark, the shearwaters started coming in. Millions nest in burrows on and around Rakiura, but perhaps only a few hundred on Ackers Point – just enough to give it a good musky smell. The birds came in like skinny bats, whirring their long wings in the still air. They often circled the headland before zeroing in on their nests – one went about 4 feet over my head – and sometimes you could hear them crashing through the underbrush when they landed in the wrong spot. Upon finding their mate on the nest, incubating, the pairs moaned at each other in a curious, urgent way for several minutes, then changed places.

About 2 hours after sunset I turned to go back down the trail. I don’t know what had made me think I wouldn’t need a light, but under the low canopy it was intensely dark. Dark like the inside of a Guinness can. I stretched my eyes wide open and still couldn’t see anything. I felt along the 1.4-km path one step at a time, listening for the sound of the packed gravel. Occasionally I heard little footsteps and some fluttering or scrabbling, as presumably a shearwater got the bejeezus scared out of it. I bent down and tried to light up the poor creature using the Indiglo dial on my watch, but all this did was turn a tiny patch of the darkness a pitiful shade of green.

That was when I remembered a conversation with Michael, a local fisherman. It was about rats. “Oh there’s millions – zillions – of bloody rats on Stewart,” he had said. “Big as!” A few minutes later we had heard one gnawing at the walls.

I stood up straight and put my watch away.

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You asked for it, you got it: a two-day-old Adelie penguin chick. Full story here.

(Image: Chris Linder/WHOI)

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orange_duffel.jpg I carried my bright-orange duffel through the last of the crisp 60 degree new Zealand air and onto the C-17, which – unlike last Friday – took off and headed for Antarctica at 300 knots. One of the most comfortable flights ever, despite the reputation, owing to unlimited legroom and even more elbow room than you get on commercial flights. The C-17 is cavernous. We sit backs to the fuselage, facing monstrous shipping containers – one holds an ice-coring drill that aims to go back 150,000 years in time through the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Coming out of the dim recesses of the plane and into Antarctic whiteness was breathtaking. The horizon opened up and hulking black mountains appeared as little chevrons in the distance. It felt vast. Looking out the door I had guessed at our orientation from the shadows, and I immediately started piecing together the sights. This must be White Island, where the Polar parties made a dogleg before heading straight to the pole. There’s the Royal Society Range, with the broad Koettlitz glacier running at its feet. Behind me, I realized, was McMurdo, huge brown dorms stacked on the hillside, crosses to fallen explorers standing on windy ridgetops, the geodesic instrument dome I had seen in so many pictures in full view. Like putting a jigsaw puzzle together, it has a familiarity, but also surprise as the pieces come together slightly differently than you’d imagined.

We had landed on the thick blue ice of the Ross Ice Shelf. It wasn’t until 15 minutes later that we touched the gray-brown volcanic rock of Antarctica. It was 20 degrees  outside and cooling off.

So where exactly am I, you ask? Somewhere down in Antarctica, but I have realized in recent conversations that not everyone has been reading quite so much on the subject, nor do they have quite such a grasp on the geography of the place. So let’s start at the beginning:

 Antarctica is big: 40 percent again larger than the U.S., and that’s not counting the tremendous ice sheets or the pack ice that forms each winter. It looks a little like a rubber ducky with a very long beak (just tilt your head to the left). That beak is the Antarctic Peninsula, which is technically part of the Andes and juts up toward South America.


 We’re going to the other side, down behind the neck of the ducky. That curve between neck and back is the Ross Sea, the place where ships can get their farthest south, all the way to about 78 degrees south latitude, or a bit more than 1,320 miles from the pole.

rosssea_n.jpg If the Ross Sea doesn’t look like much on the map, then McMurdo Sound is nothing, just a little comma at the southwest edge. Pretty hard to pick out without zooming in.

Guarding the eastern edge is Ross Island, a speck wedged up against the Ross Ice Shelf that nevertheless contains a 13,000 foot active volcano and 450,000 adelie penguins (if you count the youngsters). Not to mention McMurdo Station, our home base for the next month.

 McMurdo Station is on Hut Point peninsula, where Scott made his Discovery expedition camp in 1902. To the north is Cape Evans, where the Terra Nova expedition stayed, and 20 miles from McMurdo is Cape Royds, our first camp, with David Ainley and about 4,000 pairs of penguins. We’re hoping to be there by Saturday.


 Jump across McMurdo Sound – that comma that you couldn’t even see from the Ross Sea map. About 50 miles from McMurdo is Mt. Morning, where we’ll spend the middle of December with Woods Hole geologists Mark Kurz, Adam Soule, and grad student Andrea Burke.


 After a scheduled laundry day at McMurdo, we’ll head back out to Cape Crozier, of Worst Journey fame, for Christmas with Grant Ballard and some 300,000 penguins (adults and young). Here we’ll hope to investigate Igloo Spur as well as make the trek over to the Emperor penguins huddled on the sea ice south of the Adelies.


(I love the little penguin icons on the map.)

 And that’s our month in Antarctica – now you’re situated. So far it’s been great, but it’s been nine hours of mostly indoor heat and cafeteria food. We’ll see how melting ice for water – not to mention sleeping on it – work out. Hope you stay tuned.

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A herring gull in Scotland has earned equal parts scorn and adoration for taking on the law: stealing chips from a convenience store. The local news station has a good time with the story, which is now all over YouTube. The report is kind of hokey, but the footage is good and the reporter strays toward the Monty Python-esque about halfway through.

It may be a little too “America’s funniest home videos” for the more serious Scribble readers. But there’s something impressive going on here, too. Here’s a bird that learned to recognize that something completely manmade and unappetizing-looking could be turned into a meal. And it became so convinced of its reasoning, apparently, that it was willing to venture inside a shop. One envisions the gull, after innumerable dumpster dives, finally saying to itself, “You know, there’s got to be a better way of doing this.” Imagine its reaction when it discovered that not only does it work, but that the bags start out FULL…

At any rate, it’ll keep you going until things calm down around Scribble central. Thanks for reading.

***P.S. Geeky title alert: Herring gull = Larus argentatus

Thanks, Allison!

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penguin.jpg A momentous and long-awaited e-mail arrived on Friday:

I am in receipt of your TRW, and passport information forms.

The RPSC Medical data base shows that you are physically qualified.

I’m not sure what my TRW is or how anyone came to be in receipt of it. But the rest of the message is all good news. “Physically qualified” is the official way of saying that I’ve been judged a safe bet not to drop dead or nearly dead anytime in the next several months, and that therefore I will be allowed to spend the holidays in Antarctica.

Antarctica! Ah, finally it becomes clear (to anyone I haven’t leaked this to yet) why I’ve been piling it on so thick with the Worst Journey. I’m going to Antarctica as part of Woods Hole’s Polar Discovery team to write about penguins and lava.

All told, the trip is 5 weeks, from just before Thanksgiving to just after Christmas. At least three of those weeks will be spent in tents, 30 or more miles from the nearest electric heater. If all goes well, we’ll have Christmas dinner in a tent on Cape Crozier, the point of rock where Cherry, Wilson, and Bowers waited out that horrible blizzard that ripped the roof off their igloo.

In coming weeks, keep an eye on the website for more details of our expedition. Don’t worry, I’ll remind you.

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frontispiece.jpg The birder in me wriggles with envy at the thought of Cherry and the rest of the Terra Nova crew surrounded by teeming hordes of Adelie penguins. They rule Antarctica at least in terms of numbers: sheer, mind-boggling hundreds of thousands. I’m sure once the physics is worked out, we’ll find that this fantastic density of cuteness warps the fabric of space-time, or at least sucks some of the cuteness out of surrounding regions of the universe.

The editor in me would like to add that Adelie should be written with an accent over the first ‘e’, and that syllable should be accented. As in “a daily dose of penguins.”

Anyway, I’ve never seen a penguin in the wild. Here’s what Cherry saw, in late 1910.

Hardly had we reached the thick pack…when we saw the little Adelie penguins hurrying to meet us. Great Scott, they seemed to say, what’s this, and soon we could hear the cry which we shall never forget. ‘Aark, aark,’ they said, and full of wonder and curiosity, and perhaps a little out of breath, they stopped every now and then to express their feelings.

Wilson, the zoologist, on the Discovery expedition eight years earlier, saw them

…with head down and much hesitation judging the width of the narrow gap, to give a little standing jump across as would a child, and running on the faster to make up for its delay.

Cherry sees another resemblance:

They are extraordinarily like children, these little people of the Antarctic world, either like children or like old men, full of their own importance and late for dinner, in their black tail-coats and white shirt-fronts – and rather portly withal.

But he suggests a reason why the cinematographers are able to get such great pictures of them gathering at the edge of an iceberg:

They will refuse to dive off an ice-foot until they have persuaded one of their companions to take the first jump, for fear of the sea-leopard which may be waiting in the water below, ready to seize them and play with them much as a cat will play with a mouse.

Because adults have no predators on land, they were often clueless there:

One day a team was tethered by the side of the ship, and a penguin sighted them and hurried from afar off. The dogs became frantic with excitement as he neared them: he supposed it was a greeting, and the louder they barked and the more they strained at their ropes, the faster he bustled to meet them. He was extremely angry with a man who went and saved him from a very sudden end, clinging to his trousers with his beak, and furiously beating his shins with his flippers. It was not an uncommon sight to see a little Adelie penguin standing within a few inches of the nose of a dog which was almost frantic with desire and passion.

Scott saw the same sort of thing from a different point of view:

The great trouble with [the dog teams] has been due to the fatuous conduct of the penguins. Groups of these have been constantly leaping on our floe. From the moment of landing on their feet their whole attitude expressed devouring curiosity and a pig-headed disregard for their own safety. They waddle forward, poking their heads to and fro in their usually absurd way, in spite of a string of howling dogs straining to get at them…. There is a spring, a squawk, a horrid red patch on the snow, and the incident is closed.

In the summer of 1912-1913, before he headed home, Cherry made some of the first observations of the curious way Adelies use rocks. They pile them up to raise their eggs above runoff and late snowfall – but at times they seem to acquire the importance of currency. Males roam about endlessly in search of choice rocks to proffer before their mates.

All the surrounding rookery made their way to and fro, each husband acquiring merit, for, after each journey, he gave his wife a stone. This was the plebeian way of doing things; but my friend who stood, ever so unconcerned, upon a rock knew a trick worth two of that: he and his wife who sat so cosily upon the other side.

The victim was a third penguin. He was without a mate, but this was an opportunity to get one. With all the speed his little legs could compass he ran to and fro, taking stones from [a] deserted nest, laying them beneath a rock, and hurrying back for more. On that same rock was my friend. When the victim came up with his stone he had his back turned. But as soon as the stone was laid and the other gone for more, he jumped down, seized it with his beak, ran round, gave it to his wife and was back on the rock (with his back turned) before you could say Killer Whale. Every now and then he looked over his shoulder, to see where the next stone might be.

I watched this for twenty minutes. All that time, and I do not know for how long before, that wretched bird was bringing stone after stone. And there were no stones there. Once he looked puzzed, looked up and swore at the back of my friend on his rock, but immediately he came back, and he never seemed to think he had better stop.

Cherry had been listed on the expedition as the “assistant zoologist” despite having essentially no science training (he had studied Classics and Modern History at Oxford) – but still managed to show that the key ingredient in a field biologist is the ability to pay attention.

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homer.jpgA brief article in the UK’s Sun newspaper says officials in Minneapolis may blame the recent bridge tragedy on accumulated pigeon poo. Nothing about the article seems to be kidding. And yet.

Their thesis is logically sound: pigeons, like all birds, excrete uric acid that theoretically could eat away at steel given enough time and, er, volume.

And pigeons – properly known as “rock pigeons” to birders, were originally cliff-nesters and like nothing so much for a perch as a narrow place above a precipitous drop. Bridges are lovely for this.

But let’s be honest. For anyone to mention this with a straight face, they’d better be able to point to at least one other known instance of Pigeon Doo Corrosivity Syndrome. Bridges and pigeons have been together for a long time, after all. Not to mention a swiss-cheese effect should have become evident on urban car roofs by now.

***This post is part of an anti-pigeon-defamation initiative on the part of the Scribbler. He has become aware that many people do not enjoy pigeons quite as much as they could if they approached the topic with an open mind. In fact, it might be said that some people resent them. Strongly.

But the pigeon is a noble creature, no less worthy of our appreciation just because of its pudgy body and walnut-sized head. The birds are all muscle. In a level race, they can outfly the speed racer of birds, the peregrine falcon. They are more considerate than your typical housecat, livelier than a goldfish, and cleverer than many a chihuahua or miniature terrier.

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