Archive for the ‘birding’ Category


More evidence that everything in the universe, or at least the Pacific, really is connected. By odds too remote to be calculated, a New Zealand biologist discovered a rice-sized ID chip in the stomach of a sooty shearwater chick.

The chip traced to a chinook salmon tagged two years ago on the Columbia River, more than 7,000 miles away.

The biologists have been making the mental leaps ever since. Shearwater chicks are flightless and don’t even get in the water until after they fledge. The bird’s parent must have eaten the salmon, then regurgitated the chip into the chick along with a meal. But chinook salmon are big – way bigger than a shearwater (if there’s any justice in the world, there should be some chinook salmon swimming around right now with shearwater tags in their bellies).

Anyway, that means the shearwater must have plucked the tagged chinook out of the water back when the fish was beak sized – and carried the chip since then. That’s imaginable, since all birds have a crop – a sort of mechanical stomach where they store hard objects. It’s what they have instead of teeth. The chip could have lodged in there and then just come back out again.

And shearwaters are famous travelers. Just last year, in fact, a team of biologists made headlines when they established that sooty shearwaters take a 40,000 mile, figure-8 loop around the Pacific every year chasing an endless summer of food.

Oh, and the biologists were from the University of California, Santa Cruz. See what I mean about everything being connected?

Thanks to the KSJ Tracker for picking this one up, and nice work by the Seattle Times running this great piece of news. Image: Jeffrey Rich.

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griffon.jpgMore than 100 griffon vultures glided into Belgium this week, some 600 miles north of their breeding grounds in Spain. Taking up residence in an old field, the pack spent the next few days glowering at assorted birders and gawkers. A few got fed up and took off for Holland. On Tuesday, some Belgian environmentalists stopped by with some pig carcasses so the griffons could fuel up for their return flight. And just like that, they left.

The interesting part about the story – above and beyond the simple thrill it must have been to watch a band of feathered Hell’s Angels drop out of the sky unannounced – is the reason being tossed around for the birds’ strange behavior. People think the vultures are starving, getting desperate, and embarking on long flights looking for food.

It’s quite possible. Ever since mad cow disease scared people in 2002, the E.U. has forbidden farmers from leaving dead cattle out on their land to rot. There seems to be little evidence that’s done anything to reduce mad cow disease, but it has made for some very hungry vultures. In addition to kick-starting this vulturine road trip (think Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider), about 100 griffons near Burgos, northern Spain, assembled themselves into a posse last month and took down a perfectly healthy cow and her calf. Yikes.

It sure sounds like a good explanation – perhaps that’s why it crops up in every one of the handful of news reports on the story. And I’m all for vulture survival. But let’s at least wave the scientific method in its general direction. Apparently the E.U. says they’ve given Spanish farmers special dispensation to leave carcasses out, but few farmers actually do. And anyway, why would vultures fly northward, farther into the E.U., to find a meal?

I know, I know, vultures can’t be expected to keep up with politics, but north puts them out of the limits of their historical range, and there probably is some reason why they weren’t in northern Europe already. For an animal that has some degree of latitudinal awareness when it chooses a place to live, it seems a strange time to begin ignoring it.

I think what’s interesting here is not whether the mad-cow carcass ban actually causes vulture rampages. It’s that the hypothesis is attractive enough that it can bypass the scientific process and crop up in the news more or less as fact. (Spiegel Online, the first link in this post, does offer the E.U.’s alternative explanation, but much lower down in the story.) News space is tight, and a couple of shorter articles mentioned only the mad-cow explanation.  Read a couple of these articles in a row, and you (think you) know all you need to know about mad cows, carcasses and vulture conservation. Sound familiar?

(It seems almost unbelievable that there are no videos yet of the birds on YouTube. Perhaps I just don’t know how to search for “Brussels vultures” in Flemish, Dutch or French. I did at least learn that a “Brussels griffon” is a kind of small yappy dog that certain people like to dress up and feature in movies.)

Image: by Rev. Francis Orphen Morris, 1891, via birdcheck

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If you’re interested, check out the slimmed-down set of 78 photos from our recent road trip. Clouds, rocks, self-taken group shots, and mustaches galore.

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passerdomesticus.jpgA computing team at Berkeley and Texas A&M has finally enabled us to go birding in someone else’s backyard. Their project – the vaguely naughty-sounding Cone Sutro Forest Collaborative Observatory for Natural Environments project – takes you out onto Craigslist founder Craig Newmark’s back deck and puts a pan-tilt-zoom camera at your fingertips. There’s an array of well-stocked feeders plus a bird-bath and some alluringly red hummingbird flowers. Sign in, and you can move the camera, take snapshots of rare beauties (like this house sparrow pair) and identify or argue over the resulting pictures.

The only hitch is that there’s only one camera, and it’s simultaneously at the fingertips of everyone else. Satisfying the wishes of so many users probably makes a really interesting problem for coders, but at our end it’s a lot like being a pair of binoculars that a bunch of five-year-olds are fighting over. Seasickness is a possibility. The camera constantly wheels from bird-bath to feeder and back, zooms in impossibly close on foliage, or leers at the back windows of Craig’s neighbors (the programmers wisely disabled the zoom feature for those areas).

For all the jitteriness, users have already compiled some great photos of 13 species, including black-headed grosbeak, pygmy nuthatch and Anna’s hummingbird. Somebody named “Sialia” (bluebird) has already earned more than 900 points since yesterday. (I got one point for my house sparrow, which suggests Sialia has put considerable time in already.)

The system developers hope to invent a system that remotely monitors wildlife by collecting the observations of a crowd. (They’ve got a prototype stationed in an Arkansas swamp looking for the ivory-billed woodpecker.) I like the idea of crowd wisdom, but finding rare things has always been about looking where no one else is looking. Still, give the site a spin and enjoy some San Francisco backyard birds. Then lobby for putting the next version out at Point Reyes – where hotshots like Peter Pyle and Keith Hansen have backyard bird lists around 300 species.

Thanks to Jessica for the tip.

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jaypeg.jpg Jay attacks crow with spearlike object of its own making. Crow wrests object from jay (thus, disarming him). Picks it up and goes on the offensive.

This rather startling report of armed combat among birds, from veteran jay scientist Russ Balda in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology, was seized upon and ably reported by Joe Eaton in the Berkeley Daily Planet. His column is interesting and doesn’t waste words. Oh, and he gets in a bit of Monty Python, if I’m not mistaken. Worth a minute of your time: Wild Neighbors: En Garde! Jays Discover the Pointed Stick

Image: J.T. Csotonyi

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Video Marvelousness

spatule-copy.jpgTo keep you patient folks going while the Scribbler does something profitable, here’s a no-frills video of a strange Peruvian hummingbird. It’s called the marvelous spatuletail, and to find out why you really do need to see the bird in action.

I’ve always loved when strange words find themselves perfectly applied in naming outlandish birds. “Marvelous” here is just the ticket, as i think you’ll agree.

It’s interesting how the tropics seemed to knock all those Victorian explorers for a loop and made them reach into the ornate recesses of their vocabularies to find the right descriptor. Witness such Neotropical gems as the resplendant quetzal, striped woodhaunter, spangle-cheeked tanager, and violaceous euphonia (which does not resemble a tuba, even remotely).

Thanks to rdp1710, the veteran naturalist, for the tip and the American Bird Conservancy for hosting the video.

(And I hope you are all watching Planet Earth, which seems to have spent a million dollars an episode on making nature shows without wasting a cent of it. Sharks eating sea lions in midair in a single bite? A penguin facing up to an attacking fur seal? Sunflower stars eating poor helpless brittlestars by the mouthful? Baby snow geese struggling in the jaws of a cute but remorseless arctic fox? All this and more.)

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pencilchew.jpgMaybe the occasional Scribble Reader has wondered just who in the heck this Scribbler is. But let me tell you, that ain’t nothin’ compared to how much I wonder who the heck you guys are.

But that’s the beauty of Web 2.0, ain’t it? No more agonizing over the wording of your letter to the editor of Omni Magazine in the hopes of seeing your name in print. Just hit the Comments button and fire away.

So here’s your chance to do some scribbling of your own and fill me in on one or more of the following 15 pressing questions:

1. How did you get here? (no need to get cosmic on this one)

2. Have you visited this site before?

3. Are you just here for the baby turtles? (you would not believe how many people search the Internet each day for baby turtles)

4. What kind of posts do you like the best? (a) ocean science (b) climate change (c) birding (d) surfing (e) other?

5. Are the posts (a) about right or (b) too damn long?

6. Would you like more coverage of (a) climate change (b) islands being devastated by rats (c) weird deep-sea creatures (d) earthquake-type stuff (e) celebrity feuds and/or adoptions (f) sex (g) atmospheric physics (h) other (please specify)?

7. How educated are you: (a) made it out of high school; curious about the world (b) still interested in most things (B.S.) (c) able to detect the infantile flaws in some stories; peripherally interested in all the rest (M.S.) (c) basically humoring me (Ph.D.)?

8. Do you wish the words I use were (a) longer (b) shorter (c) funnier (d) snarkier (e) less stupid (f) rhyming?

9. Do you occasionally wonder what possesses me to spend an hour or so writing about such obscure topics?

10. More pictures? (Of what?)

11. Are you not leaving comments because (a) the posts arrive fully formed and inviolable (b) you never make it to the end of a post (c) it’s interesting, just not that interesting (d) try writing about something that matters (e) you have a lingering feeling that even though only a tiny fraction of the world’s population will ever look at a comments page, you might come off sounding stupid and someone, somewhere, might snicker at you from the lonely confines of their poorly lit hovel

12. If scientists were to turn their collective intellectual power toward designing one and only one robot animal, what animal should that be?

13. I am an heir/heiress and I would like to contribute ___ million dollars to further the Scribbler agenda

14. Do I know you? How?

15. Setting aside the surfing and the birding for a moment, if there was one thing in the world you’d like me to write about, what would it be?

I’m really not kidding about this. Answer as much or as little as you see fit. Post a comment – or – if you don’t feel like going totally public – send aphriza at gmail dot com an e-mail. Thanks for reading.

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The cute, fluffy bird world hit the science big time two years ago when Chris Templeton of University of Washington deciphered the information contained in chickadee calls. He found that the birds’ alarm calls went beyond a simple “Watch out.” They also gave a heads-up about what kind of dangerous predator was around.

This week, Templeton and former advisor Erick Greene are back in the news with reports that nuthatches listen in on those chickadee calls and decipher the information contained in them. This sort of interspecific codebreaking is a little like your dog listening in on your conversation and learning whether you are headed to the park or to the vet.

We’re willing to forgive AP reporter Randolph Schmid for misspelling the eminent Dr. Greene’s surname in the national press. Why? Because he pulled off an amazing feat of journalistic intrepidness when he sought an expert’s independent opinion on the findings. He called up Charles Eldermire at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which is one of the country’s great resources about birds and science.

That in itself is good journalism. But did reporter Schmid realize that Eldermire, when he’s online, is none other than the Contemplative Nuthatch himself?? Not only that, but the kid spent his master’s degree research studying chickadees. So Schmid has found arguably the single most qualified expert to comment on breakthroughs in nuthatch-chickadee communication. His reporterly fortitude simply boggles the mind. Kudos!

And if the newspaper reports left you wanting to hear more, check out the Nuthatch’s own take on the research, complete with discussion of the fine points, links to background articles, and a sound spectrogram of the chickadee calls themselves. Nice work.

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***Warning to science-y readers: this is a science-free post***

**Except for the large slide rule and the paleoceanographer**

*And the parakeets*

Last week, the Scribbler E.U. Tour took England by storm. To save you busy people some time, my 20,000 word write-up has been condensed using the well known words-pictures relationship. These were the highlights:

white_tower.jpg spamalot.jpg Seeing the Tower of London and Spamalot the same day.

parakeets.jpg parakeets_detail.jpg Wild rose-ringed parakeets in Hyde Park drinking from puddles in the sycamores. Here’s a view through the Scribbler’s binoculars.

jackdaw.jpg Sort of a cross between a crow and a chimney-sweep, jackdaws are delightful and spiffy.

chalk.jpg The deep low tides that arrive on a full moon are always a spectacle. Even more so when the reef is made of the same bright chalk as the cliffs.

fishnchips.jpg Fish-n-chips as they were meant to be: wrapped in paper, drenched in vinegar, and eaten on a pier. Note this expert’s consistently flawless fried-food-munching technique: (compare with Twinkie).

channel.jpg feetinchannel.jpg Sticking my feet in the English Channel for the first time in 27 years. Wasn’t much warmer than last time.

slides.jpg An art gallery (the Tate Modern) with five-story slides you can ride.

nathistory.jpg nathistory_pterano.jpg nathistory_jackal.jpg The incredible architecture at the Natural History Museum. All three pictures were taken from the same spot; the detail views are from “digiscoping” – pointing the ScribbleCam through the ScribbleBinos. The jackal (right) is sitting at far upper right in the first photo.

sliderule.jpg At the Science Museum, a 21st-century paleoceanographer confronts a slide rule.

ginandbeer.jpg Pints for two pounds fifty are a steal, but the exchange rate is a bit shocking.

abseil.jpg Thrill-seeking: a gear-free abseil on a braided hemp rope down a sheer mud precipice. Admittedly, it was 10 feet high and I was following a fearless 12-year-old in pink wellies (Lydia Visick).

joesbird.jpg My first-cousin-once-removed, Joe Visick (age 7), sketches marvelous birds using something of an Edward Gorey approach.

downs.jpg birlinggap.jpg Beautiful English spring weather makes Bremen (rhymes with “rainin'”) hard to come back to. (First picture, right to left: 21st-century paleoceanographer Mea Cook; writer-photographer-cousin David Visick; musician-of-note Marko Packard)

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condor_crag.jpgMy completely anonymous housemate was out climbing at Pinnacles National Monument a few weeks ago. The place is an intriguing jumble of rock pillars southeast of Monterey, California. But with pictures like this one, where giant vultures dangle their scruffy necks above approaching rock climbers, it might just as well be the Karakoram.

But these are California condors, reintroduced to Pinnacles just two years ago as the 20-year-old captive breeding program continues to expand its horizons (the public can attend another condor release here April 21st).

In the mid-80s, scientists captured the entire world’s population – all 22 of ’em – and started a last-ditch breeding effort. Surviving against all odds, the grizzled adults and their hand-puppet-raised offspring grew to nearly three hundred in number, and 138 now fly over the Grand Canyon, Big Sur, Pinnacles, and Baja California – wild once more, give or take the occasional large-mammal carcass and annual lead checkups biologists provide. Next time you find a California quarter in your pocket, look for the condor on the tails side, soaring over Half Dome.

Our alert climber/photographer zoomed in on the top-left bird (above), snapping this closeup. Against the white underwings you can see the bird’s patagial ID marker, which also carries an antenna for radio-tracking.

condor_wingspread.jpgThese birds are immense. The partial wingspan you see here is casting enough shade to keep most of us cool during a nap – add what’s out of view and we’re talking nine feet. Bigger than your front door.

I like this last picture – a bird soaring against a hillside – for its sense of massiveness and the way you can feel the wind shearing through the upturned primary (wingtip) feathers. We’re talking about 20 pounds of bird cruising through the sky with all deliberate speed. The pic is a little grainy, but let’s cut the photographer some slack: he was dangling from a belay, camera in hand, a hundred feet up. And the condors were getting closer.


(all photos: the completely anonymous housemate)

(more Pinnacles condors here, on the Condor Cam)

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