Saturday, October 30, 2010

Winter Finches - Pine Siskins

Winter finches - Pine Siskin & Purple Finch
Is this going to be a year for winter finches? Birders are asking one another the question, using the “Winter Finch Forecast” and their own experience and observations to keep the discussion going. A prior question for many people is: What is a winter finch?

In broad terms, a winter finch is one of a group of closely related seed eaters that lives in the northern forests and does not migrate. Instead, it leaves its normal wintering area and irrupts, usually southward, in an irregular pattern from year to year depending upon food supplies.

Migration is a fairly regular and predictable pattern. For example, the wood warblers, having raised their families, began leaving in August. They will migrate to the tropics where they will winter. Next spring, they will migrate north to their breeding grounds. It is a pattern which repeats itself year after year.

 Irruptive species do not follow a regular pattern. They may stay in the same area throughout the year. Or during the winter they may move suddenly south a short distance, or a long distance. They may move east, or west ... depending upon where the food is.

Generally, the winter finches include these species: Purple Finch, Pine Siskin, Pine Grosbeak, Evening Grosbeak, Common and Hoary Redpoll, Red and White-winged Crossbill. Non-finch species which may irrupt are Blue Jay, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Bohemian Waxwing.

Pine Siskin - mid-April, 2009, South Newfane, VT

Let’s focus on Pine Siskins. In the winter of 08-09, they were common in my backyard, often filling every perch on the thistle feeder and the black-oil sunflower feeder, and crowding the platform feeder. Even in the middle of April, they were picking seeds out of the melting snow.

From May, 2009, until mid-October, 2010, I did not see one single Pine Siskin in my backyard, or for that matter, anywhere in New England. Beginning this Fall in early October, there were reports of Pine Siskins in the north of Vermont. The reports gradually moved southward. On October 18, there were eight siskins at my feeders. The numbers increased during the ensuing week so that often the siskins were the most common bird dining in my yard. It may be that this will be a good winter for seeing Pine Siskins, a winter finch.

American Goldfinch and Pine Siskin

If you have goldfinches at your feeders, watch them closely. They have changed from their bright yellow summer plumage to their olive-drab winter plumage. They are dull, nondescript little birds. Some of those goldfinches may be streaked, much the way sparrows are streaked. They may have a more pointy beak, and may have bits of yellow in their wings. If you see a goldfinch like this - a “goldfinch in camouflage” as Kaufman puts it - you are actually seeing a Pine Siskin. The two species are very closely related; they exhibit similar behavior and often flock together. One striking contrast between the Pine Siskin and the American Goldfinch is when they breed. The siskin begins breeding in late March and early April. In our area, the goldfinch is one of the last species to breed, often not beginning until mid-July.

The October presence of Pine Siskins in New England is contrary to the forecast. For a number of years, Ontario Field Ornithologists have gathered information about seed crops, breeding success, and population numbers from naturalists, researches, volunteers, and the staff of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. This gathered data provides the basis for the annual “Winter Finch Forecast.”

Here is the forecast for Pine Siskins: Pine Siskins favor the cones of the white spruce, and where the cone crop is abundant, the birds are likely to be found during the winter. Siskins are considered to be an opportunistic nomad. They go where their preferred food is most readily found. “Banding recoveries show that siskins wander from coast to coast searching for conifer seed crops. They were uncommon this past summer in Ontario and the Northeast. Some might winter in northern Ontario where the white spruce crop is heavy. However, siskins are currently uncommon in the Northeast so there are potentially only very small numbers that could irrupt south in eastern North America.”

Young Pine Siskin, mid-August, 2007, South Newfane, VT
 Siskins nest in northern boreal forests, and that may include the forests of Vermont. When doing the Vermont Breeding Bird Atlas field work, I found the Pine Siskin on the top of Mt. Snow as a probable breeder, one of twenty survey areas in the state where it was a confirmed or probable breeding species. In August of the same year, I had a siskin at my feeders which still showed pink at the base of its bill, an indication of a hatch year bird.

In Vermont the boreal forest is at its southern limit; it is often fragmented on mountain tops. The population of the boreal species (as with all species whatever their habitat) can vary significantly from year to year, depending upon weather and food supplies. Of course, this includes the population of the Pine Siskins. Some years the siskin may be common, and other years it may be all but impossible to find. It is not unusual that a year will go by when an active bird watcher does not see this bird.

Pine Siskins were reported as uncommon in Ontario during the past summer. They also have plenty of natural food in the northern parts of the province. The forecast for an irruption suggests that it is unlikely for our northen neighbors. Nevertheless, it does appear that siskins are irrupting into New England; they are certainly are more common this year than last year.

Bratty, little pipsqueak
If you are lucky, the Pine Siskins may find your feeders. If so, you will have an entertaining visitor. Pete Dunne calls them “the bratty, streaky, little pipsqueak at the thistle feeder.” They are social, active, nimble, and quick. They are also quarrelsome and belligerent. They stand up to just about any other bird smaller than a Blue Jay. They twitter away like a goldfinch, but distinguish themselves from their cousins by throwing in a fast rising “zzsshrreeee.”

I’ll return to other winter finches in the future.

Good birding!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Backyard Birds

A low grade fever has kept me from doing much of anything, but it takes little effort to sit on the back porch and watch the birds. Yesterday was an Indian Summer type of day which was irresistible to that kind of inactivity.

This has been one of the busiest falls in the backyard in recent years, with sparrows and finches in large numbers, including some of the winter finches (subject of this week's column). Note: in the captions, I indicate relative numbers in the yard.

American Goldfinch (common) and Pine Siskin (very common)

White-crowned Sparrow - juvenile (uncommon)

Little Brown Birds (l to r): Song Sparrow (very common), Purple Finch - female (common), White-throated Sparrow (abundant). Also, Dark-eyed Junco (abundant)
I don't know if the Blue Jays are residents who raised families in the neighborhood, or irruptive migrants from the north, but the evidence suggests that many of them will be wintering in the area. Note that this jay is filling its crop with seed. In good Corvid fashion, it is probably stashing seeds somewhere for a cold winter day. Filling the crop (and emptying my feeders) is a daily occurrence with the jays.

Blue Jay - a year-round resident? or visitor from the north? (very common)

White-breasted Nuthatch  - year-round resident (common)

Tufted Titmouse - year-round resident (common)
Good birding!!

Saturday, October 23, 2010


Sharp-shinned Hawk
“There are two birds up there,” said the hawk watcher.

The visitor stared at the sky in the direction the hawk watcher was looking. “Oh yes, I see them.” The smaller bird dove toward the larger one, both swirled rapidly, each seeming to attack the other in rapid succession.

“They’re Sharp-shinned Hawks,” said the hawk watcher. “Male and female.”

“How in the world can you tell?” asked the visitor.

“The males are smaller than the females. He’s weighs about as much as a quarter pounder. She’s almost twice as big.”

“Okay, but how do you even know they’re sharpies?”

“When we see one hawk attack another hawk, it is almost always a sharpie. We look for other clues, like a small head and a long thin tail. But sharpies have an attitude; they’ll go after anything. We’ve even seen them harass an eagle. That’s what sharpies often do.”

Cooper's Hawk harassing Bald Eagle
A conversation of this sort is repeated several times on the Putney ridge during the hawk watch season. One of the best clues these hawk watchers use to identify a small, distant hawk, is the “attitude” which compels harassment of another hawk.

Harassment of one bird by another bird is usually a defensive technique. Blue Jays are especially noted for the way they will mob a hawk. In late August, I watched as jays screamed their displeasure and made continuous mock attacks on a young Sharp-shinned Hawk. The hawk in turn made ineffectual attempts to chase the jays. Blue jays are frequent targets of the accipiters and there is good reason for their alarm when a hawk is in the neighborhood.

Eastern Kingbird
I have watched the Eastern Kingbird attack anything which intruded on its nesting territory, regardless of size. I watched a small mixed flock of woodpeckers and song birds go after a Barred Owl on a wintry morning. Crows are often seen along an interstate harassing a Red-tailed Hawk which wants to do nothing but stay perched until it sees a mouse moving in the grass. And I’ll never forget seeing a Red-winged Blackbird pecking on the back of a hapless Turkey Vulture as it laboriously tried to get airborne on a cool morning.

Protection of nesting territory and proactive protection against a potential predator accounts for most of this behavior. But I must admit that I am at a loss to explain the feistiness of the Sharp-shinned Hawk, especially since so many are young hatch year birds. Is there genetic encoding which is protecting against territorial intrusion. Is there an attempt to take prey on the wing? Or is there a preemptive attack to prevent becoming prey? Sharp-shins are small hawks, and they are preyed upon by larger hawks, even their cousin, the Cooper’s Hawk.

A few years ago, I read a daily report from a hawk watch site in southeastern Michigan. It was a slow day for the hawks. The hawk watchers were happy when a Sharp-shinned Hawk was sighted. As it worked its way southward, it was duly counted. Then a Peregrine Falcon suddenly dove on the sharpie, grabbed it in mid-air, and began to feed as it continued to fly. The sharpie was taken off the count list; the Peregrine was added.


Sharp-shinned Hawks are not the only raptors with attitude. Pete Dunne (in Hawks in Flight) describes the sharpie as feisty, but when writing about the Merlin he uses adjectives like aggressive, pugnacious, and intolerant. The Merlin is a falcon only slightly larger than the kestrel. But where the kestrel is a waif on the wind, the Merlin is compact, powerful, and fast.

Dunne writes of the Merlin: “They will go out of their way to harass a bird that crosses into their territory or occupies their airspace. Since Merlins seem just as easily provoked during migration as at any other time of year, a Merlin’s territory may be inferred to be wherever it happens to find itself.” He continues on their attitude: “Merlins are usually solitary (because they have a bad disposition) and will frequently go out of their way to harass other birds in migration .... At Cape May, high-flying Merlins are usually detected because they are harassing another raptor.”

Cooper's Hawk harassing Northern Harrier
The Northen Harrier is a rather benign raptor. It sweeps and glides above a field or a marsh, a gentle and harmless raptor except to the mice it is hunting. It doesn’t bother others. But that doesn’t spare it from harassment.

Early this week I watched a young harrier passing over the hawk watch site at Lighthouse Point where the Connecticut River enters Long Island Sound. The harrier’s presence provoked the ire of a young female Cooper’s Hawk. She dove at the young harrier.

The match-up was like putting a lanky wide receiver with no speed whatsoever, against a beefy linebacker. The harrier has the longer wing span, but gram for gram the two birds weigh about the same. She dove at him, attacking him from the rear with her talons down. Then she did it again, and again. The poor harrier youngster flew from her wrath as quickly as he could, which is not very quickly. As speedsters go, the harrier is a tortoise.
    Was the Cooper’s overly optimistic, thinking she could somehow snatch the harrier and have a generous meal? Or did she simply have an attitude, taking offense at the harrier’s presence in her presence and driving him from her airspace? Whatever the reason, it happened less than a hundred feet above my head.
    Attitude. It’s not very pleasant when you have to deal with another person who has it. But when watching hawks, it makes for some great hawk watching.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Grosbeaks, Finches, Sparrows

Birders in southeastern Vermont have been excited by two (maybe three) Blue Grosbeaks in Vernon. A southern species rarely encountered this far north, they were probably brought north on one of the recent nor'easters.

Blue Grosbeaks (female or juvenile)

The juveniles (or females) were among a large mixed flock of sparrows( White-throat, White-crowned, Song) and juncos. Here is a nice size comparison between the Blue Grosbeak and the White-throated Sparrow ...

Blue Grosbeak (l) with White-throated Sparrow (r)

In my backyard, there have about 10+ Evening Grosbeaks, uncountable numbers of Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows, and a few adult and juvenile White-crowned Sparrows. A few Chipping Sparrows also linger, almost all of them juveniles ...

Chipping Sparrow (juvenile)
 Last year the winter finches were almost totally absent. Predictions have not been much better for this year. To my surprise, and delight, Pine Siskins  (close relative of goldfinches) appeared on Monday (12+) and have quickly taken to the largess of my bird tables.

Pine Siskin - with American Goldfinch (rear right)

But the highlight in the backyard is the Fox Sparrow which arrived on Sunday and continues to scratch for seeds, of which there are many on the ground (say "thank you," Mr. Fox, to the Blue Jays).The Fox Sparrow is a transient; one paused very briefly during the spring. I also had a very brief encounter with one on the Gaspe Peninsula in June. This beautiful, and large sparrow, is a treat to have visiting in the yard ...

Fox Sparrow (red-taiga)
 This has been a good year for sparrows and finches in the yard. Note that the Fox Sparrow is surrounded by White-throated Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, and Purple Finch ...

Fox Sparrow (c) with sparrows, juncos, finch
Good birding!!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Lighthouse Point Hawk Watch

Sunday I visited the hawk watch at Lighthouse Point (where the Connecticut River enters Long Island Sound) - an excellent morning with many low flying hawks and good photo ops. Here are a few samples:

Sharp-shinned Hawk (adult)
Northern Harrier (juvenile) harassed by Cooper's Hawk (juvenile)
Cooper's Hawk (juvenile)
Red-shouldered Hawk (juvenile Eastern)
Red-shouldered Hawk (juvenile Eastern)
Good birding!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Poor Sam Peabody

This morning as I laid in my bed trying to stir myself into consciousness, I listened for the sounds of the awakening world through my open bedroom window. A couple of Blue Jays called back and forth with their harsh jay ... jay. A cardinal, so often one of the first birds to visit the feeders in the morning, chipped. There was a wing whirr as a Mourning Dove took flight. Slowly the number of twitterings from the goldfinches increased - once I heard a chick-a-dee-dee-dee.

These were the sounds of a fall morning. What a difference, I thought, from four months ago when I could listen to two dozen different species singing their early morning songs, announcing their presence, staking their territory, and calling for a mate. Now the breeding season has been completed.

The song birds are on the move; their singing is but a memory of summer. As the morning slowly lightened, I could hear only one bird singing, but it wasn’t the full song. Just dribs and drabs, as though perhaps the juveniles hatched this year were trying to learn. Peeeea ... body. Pea, pea, pea ... body. Pea ... body-body-body. Pooor ... sam. Once in a while, someone even got it completely right: poor-poor-sam-peabody-peabody-peabody.

The White-throated Sparrow has one of the most recognizable songs of any sparrow, or any songbird for that matter. To my ear, the clear, whistled notes of the song sounds plaintive and mournful, a song of ruefulness and longing. I have to remind myself that it is a love song - a song to establish territory, warn off rivals, and attract a mate. There is nothing plaintive about the White-throat’s song to another White-throat. To one of his own kind on breeding territory, it is a declaration of territorial prerogative or an invitation to erotic adventure.

But why are the White-throated Sparrows singing now? Now is their time to gather in flocks, to forage together, to use others of their kind as look-outs for danger, to move southward against impending winter.

Young songbirds learn their species’ songs from the older birds, and the best guess is that the variety of partial songs I am hearing in the early morning are the White-throated juveniles learning and practicing.

When I went downstairs for my second cup of coffee, there was enough light to see the birds on the ground. The mixed flock of sparrows included Song Sparrows, a few Chipping and White-crowned Sparrows, and many White-throated Sparrows. Among the latter, there was a great deal of variation, but looking carefully I could see many whose white throat was a small, dirty white patch - juveniles. From the thick protection of the scrub roses, these were the ones I suspected of singing their incomplete songs.

White-throated Sparrows are transients in my neighborhood. At 700 feet, I am too “tropical” for these northern nesters. I have seldom heard their territorial singing at much less that 1200 feet. The higher into the Green Mountains I have gone, the more common they are during the summer.  They are a northern breeding species, so much so that our neighbors to the north render their song as o-canada-canada-canada.

As a group, sparrows often pose many frustrations to bird watchers. Collectively they are known as “little brown jobs” or LBJs. The adult White-throated Sparrow in fresh breeding plumage is a welcome exception; it is readily recognizable with its bright white stripes on the head, bright yellow lores above the eyes, and bright white throat.

But, try to remember next Spring when these sparrows pass through your neighborhood to look at them carefully. Having survived the winter, all will be adult birds and potential breeders. You will notice that some have bright white strips on the head, while others have tan stripes. These are not sexual differences, but color morphs found among both males and females.

Now it gets really interesting - and perhaps confusing. Recent research has shown that white and tan striped males prefer females with white stripes, while both kinds of females prefer tan striped males. White-striped birds are more aggressive than tan-striped ones, and white-striped females seem to be able to out-compete their tan-striped sisters for tan-striped males. The end result of these preferences and aggressive differences is that individuals almost always mate with birds of the opposite morph.

There are behavioral differences between the two color morphs. White-striped males do more singing than tan-striped males. White-striped females sing; tan-striped females do not. White-striped birds are more aggressive than tan-striped birds. The greater aggressiveness of the white-striped female apparently results in pairs with tan-striped males forming more quickly than those of the opposite combination. White-striped males are more likely to mate with several females. Tan-striped adults feed their young more often than white-striped adults.

Research has established these behavioral differences between the two color morphs, but has yet to figure out why it occurs or what sort of advantage there may be in this behavior.

It was mid-day when I returned to my desk to continue writing. The White-throated Sparrows were no longer singing. Come Spring, the singing will begin before sunrise and continue through much of the day, but for now the incomplete songs of the young birds are being practiced only at the day’s first light. (Having put the period on the previous sentence, I then heard a single White-throat sing - so they practice mostly at the day’s first light!)

With winter looming, most birds limit their vocalizations to simple call notes. The White-throated Sparrow is a welcome exception. “Pooorr, sam, peabody, peabody, peabody.”
Good birding.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Milestone !

A milestone, of sorts, has been reached with this blog. Overnight, the counter which records the number of "hits" on this site broke the 100,000 mark. I never thought I would pay much attention to those statistics, but I was wrong. Thank you!

Last weekend's Newfane Heritage Festival (I had responsibility, with help, for the 90 exhibitors) was a tremendous success - absolutely glorious October weather, wonderful crowds, great exhibitors, friendly people!!

 The last week I have been recovering and catching up. A brief visit to Putney Mountain Hawk Watch (which also had a great weekend) yielded a few hawks and wonderful panoramas of the colors splashed across our ancient hills and mountains.

Birdwatching has been limited to the kitchen window. Still about a dozen Evening Grosbeaks coming around, plenty of Purple Finches, and abundant American Goldfinches - awaiting Pine Siskins which have been reported in the area. And of course, the usual resident tits, corvids, doves, etc. The number of sparrows is the largest in several years, with Chipping, Song, White-throated, and White-crowned present in various morphs, ages, and molts. (One Chipping, for example, has a distinct white collar.)

When I have traveled in the West in the winter, White-crowned Sparrows have been very common to abundant. But in my area, they are Spring and Fall migrants, sometimes sneaking through almost unnoticed. So when they appear at the feeders, I welcome their handsome elegance.

I usually post my column on Saturday morning. I am still catching up. It'll be along soon. Thanks again to all who stop by and have rolled the counter over 100,000.

I hope to catch up with comments, replies, and blog reading soon.

Good birding!

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Blue Jays on the Move

The Blue Jays were on the move. Out of sight, they were talking back and forth to one another - the harsh “jay ... jay” - the gargled “jay ... jay” - the “jay ... jay” that sounds like water glumping through the narrow neck of a bottle suddenly turned upside down.

A single Blue Jay braked his wings and landed atop the pine tree. “Jay ... jay,” it said. A second stopped among the bare branches of the neighboring birch tree. “Jay ... jay,” it replied. More Blue Jays added to the conversation, and a third found a branch as it joined the first on the pine tree. The fourth jay chose another birch and a fifth took the maple with a few clinging red leaves.

Like antsy children unable to sit still, each bird shifted about on its perch for additional views, crest up, head turned, cocked. And back and forth went the conversation: “jay, jay,” “jay, jay,” “jay, jay.” Number six and seven responded “jay, jay,” as they appeared briefly above the tree tops, then disappeared into branches behind the pine and in a tree that still held its leaves.

Number one and two scanned the skies and trees, as though on a reconnaissance for their colleagues. “Jay, jay ... jay, jay” in a variety of tones and pitches, gurgles and glumps, a complex communication language which conveyed information and offered opinions just as clearly as any of the thousands of languages spoken by our species. Their Blue Jay conversation became intense, even raucous, but only the ignorant or arrogant among those humans who listen would call it mere noise or meaningless babble.

“Jay, jay ... jay, jay.” As though everyone were talking at once, the conversation hit a crescendo. Then they all fell silent for beat one, beat two, beat three. A single, “jay.” And then the Blue Jay atop the barren birch tree took flight. Six more followed the lead, white breast and dark wings briefly silhouetted against the blue sky as each launched upward quickly, then as quickly leveled out and flew low across the ridge top clearing.

“Seven,” said a watcher seated on the ridge below, and then continued to count: “8, 9, 10, 11, 12 ....” as Blue Jays continued to appeared just above the tree tops and then follow the leaders’ low flight across the ridge and down over the tree tops into the valley. “... 21, 22, 23 ...”  For a few moments no birds appeared in front of the watcher. Then there were more flashes above the tree tops as four more came to a brief pause around the pine before continuing the flight path established by the reconnaissance party. “34, 35, 36, 37.” This time there were longer moments with no new birds. Finally, a straggler made the flight. “38.” The watcher waited a little longer, just to be sure, and then the number was recorded in the notebook.

Blue Jays are on the move.

The men and women who count hawks on the Putney Mountain ridge might appear to be narrowly focused and even obsessive about watching hawks. But they have a much broader interest and fascination with birds and the world in which we live. Raptors overhead may be the focus, but often long stretches pass when no hawks are flying, and when they do fly, often the hawk is here and  and there and gone.

Curiosity and broader interests then capture the attention of those hawk watchers - like the green snake warming itself at the edge of the bushes. Or the three inch green Cecropia Moth caterpillar, with its yellow, red, and blue nodules.

Or the unfamiliar chip note coming from the shrubs which sent someone in quest of the bird and a new addition to the repertoire of recognized bird calls. Or the morning fall-out of migrating warblers gleaning insects and scarfing berries, refueling before restorative rest.

And then there are the Blue Jays, conspicuous and numerous. Curious about how numerous the jays are, some years ago the numbers started to be written down. Hundreds passing over the ridge in a single day are not unusual. This has been a good year. About 2500 Blue Jays have been counted.

As with any inquiry, gathering one piece of information or answering one question leads exponentially to new questions. Where did they come from? Where are they going? Do they leap frog over the Blue Jays who fed their young in my back yard this summer? Are my Blue Jays year-round residents, or do they move south to be replaced by birds from the north who perhaps pass over the Putney ridge?

I don’t know. One piece of wisdom which birdwatching constantly reinforces is the vast expanse of my ignorance. The corollary piece of wisdom is to distrust anybody who has all of the answers. Hang out with people who know how much they don’t know, and you are probably hanging out with wise people from whom you can learn much.

Blue Jays. A month and a half ago I watched a flock of Blue Jays harass a young Sharp-shinned Hawk which responded by ineffectually chasing the jays. Blue Jays are sentinels to danger. Their loud conversations and perpetual nervousness at bird feeders is essential to their survival. I find blue feathers on the grass. The feathers are from the wings or tail of a Blue Jay that was momentarily inattentive, or a fraction of a second too slow. The feathers are a sign that a hawk has fed.

When the Blue Jays nervously survey the opening atop the Putney ridge and communicate loudly among themselves, I am quite sure that they are looking for danger. Somehow they know that the Great Horned Owl in the tree top is a harmless plastic fake. They fly past it without a hesitating glance. They are moderately attentive to the voyeuristic hawk watchers seated on the ground. But this time of year when the Blue Jays are moving south in search of places with enough food for the bleak winter months ahead, the hawks are also moving south with the same purpose in mind. The sharpies and coopers, the merlins and peregrines are migrating. They also need food. They are a danger. The Blue Jays scout the skies and trees along the ridge before moving into the unprotected open.

“Jay, jay.” “Jay, jay.” “Jay, jay.” It looks safe. Let’s go.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

A Wise Old Bird Says ...

A wise old bird says, "If you're looking for something really great to do this weekend, and you are not very far from southeastern Vermont ...

... then you don't want to miss Newfane Heritage Festival, on the Newfane Common, where 90 talented artists and hand crafters will tempt you to do your Christmas shopping early, while some of the friendliest people in New England will entertain you and feed you.

"Well," say the smart birds, "let's get a move on!"

(Explantory Note: All of the arrangements for the 90 Exhibitors at the festival is my responsibility, so I'll pretty much be living on the Common this weekend - it's a beautiful location, great Fall weather is on tap, the hills are ablaze. If you are in the area, come on over! Check the website:

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Bad News and Good News

From April through August, the American public watched  the environmental disaster caused by the corporate failures of BP and its associates. Millions of barrels of crude oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico, fouling beaches, marshes, the sea bed, killing untold numbers of wildlife and seafood resources, and threatening the livelihood of people who have lived on those waters for generations.

After months of trial and error, and learn-as-we-go, the oil well was finally stopped, then permanently “killed.” The disaster was over and the American public breathed a sigh of relief. With a normal attention span of a two-year old toddler, the oil spill had taxed the public’s concentration ability almost to the breaking point. The broadcast media, with an even shorter attention span, quickly filled the gap once the oil was stopped. Finally they could report on something really important like the failed drug test and additional jail time for Lindsay Lohan, that poor girl.

Out of sight and out of mind. The New England Patriots won on Sunday. Life is back to normal and good.

Don’t believe it for a minute. The Gulf oil spill is a disaster which will require decades before complete recovery is achieved, if recovery is even achievable.

Collectively, the American public has a very short attention span on average. But imagine what that average would be like if it was not raised by people who have a longer span. Some people do remember, even back many years. And you remember over twenty years ago (1989) when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound in Alaska and spilled its load of crude oil. At that time, we thought it could not get any worse. But recent events have shown that one drunken ship captain is nothing compared to the collective malfeasance of corporate corner cutters.

Sticking with the Alaska spill: scientists have continued to study the effects of oil on the ecology of Prince William Sound. Living Bird, published by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, reported in the Summer, 2010 issue, some of the results of the continuing study. Before the Exxon Valdez, it was thought that oil from a spill dissipates rather quickly and natural systems rebound. “So scientists were surprised when a 10-year reassessment shows that many species in Prince William Sound had not recovered, and some, such as Pigeon Guillemots and herring, were still getting worse.” They have also found thousands of gallons of unweathered crude under the sand and rocks, particularly the intertidal areas where it periodically gets stirred back into the water.

 Harlequin Ducks provide one example of the long term effects. These ducks have the ability (shared with many vertebrates) to make an enzyme when they encounter the toxins contained in oil, such as PCBs and dioxins. “There are few natural resources of these compounds, especially in otherwise largely unpolluted Prince William Sound, so finding the enzyme indicates that the ducks have recently ingested some toxic oil ... In the 2010 study, Harlequin Ducks in oiled areas had up to four times as much toxin-fighting enzyme activity as ducks from clean comparison areas - a clear signal they were still being exposed to toxins on a day-to-day basis.”

When the Exxon Valdez spill occurred, 7 percent of the Harlequin Ducks died outright. Fortunately, the toxins to which they are still exposed do not seem to be fatal. Their numbers are increasing, though they are still a long way from fully recovering.

Enzymes and toxins are rather arcane, and it all happened a long time ago, and things are better, so why worry? Paris Hilton, the media reports, got busted again for drug possession. Spoiled rich girl.

Maybe it is time for people with longer attention spans to have some good news, and there is good news to be had.

A posting on the website of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies ( summarizes the 2010 breeding season for Common Loons in Vermont. The years-long work of the Vermont Loon Recovery Project is (cautiously) showing success.

In 2010, 72 loon pairs attempted to nest. 57 pair were successful. 70 loon chicks survived through August. Ten years ago there were only 38 nesting pairs and 44 chicks survived.

The statewide loonwatch survey done in July counted 210 adult loons on 127 lakes, down from 228 adult loons in 2009. “The reasons for the decline are unclear although early high winds and waves might be a major factor. Also, two adult loons were killed by other loons in June during territorial battles. Loons are very territorial, and competition will likely cause Vermont’s loon population to level out. This might be the beginning of that.” (Footnote: one of the territorial loon fatalities was in Brattleboro.)

Species which are at the top of the food chain, such as the Common Loon, are relatively few in number. We have removed or mitigated many of the unnatural causes of loon mortality, such as DDT in the environment, human caused habitat loss, and human disturbance. But the loon population in Vermont will not experience unlimited growth. On its own our loon population will achieve a balance brought about by the genetic strength of individuals, territorial limits, predation, weather patterns, and other complex interrelated forces.

One final piece of good news: It is unlikely that Vermont’s loons will be affected by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Our loons migrate to the New England coast for the winter. Adults usually leave the chicks to fend for themselves and head toward the coast in October. If the chicks have figured out the last bits of surviving on their own, they will head to the coast in November.

Good birding.


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