Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween, Y'all! [Season's Greetings]

I feel guilty about it, but I have to come clean. We actively participated pumpkin-top removal to create three jack-o-lanterns to celebrate the season.

But we offset our footprint by using locally grown, organic pumpkins. Very local, in fact, all three came from our garden. We've tried in the past but never had a pumpkin survive until Halloween, but this year we had a more robust crop, due to their organic situation: they grew in our compost pile.

Happy Halloween!


Thursday, October 29, 2009

Learn More About Birds [Double Your Pleasure]

Here's another FYI post to announce a new online course offered through the Cornell Lab, especially great for those who want to increase their knowledge about the birds they're watching.

Enhance Your Enjoyment of Birds with Our New Online Course

Why does a Red-winged Blackbird flare its colorful wing patches? What does it mean when ducks bob their heads? Explore the meaning behind fascinating bird behaviors with the Cornell Lab's newest course, "Investigating Behavior—Courtship and Rivalry in Birds."

"It's packed with multimedia and interactive activities that make this course unlike anything else available," says course instructor and author Colleen McLinn. "We wanted to create a learning environment that's friendly and accessible to everyone."

“You get the whole gamut—from birds you might see in your backyard to the most spectacular birds on the planet,” says course coauthor Kevin McGowan.

The five-week course begins on November 11 and will be offered again on January 6. The course is $255 for Cornell Lab members ($295 for nonmembers), plus a $30 registration fee. You can watch a 2.5-minute video about the course at To receive the member discount, sign up by phone at (866) 326-7635 and mention that you are a member. Enrollment is limited, so sign up soon!


A Golden Opportunity! [Working for a Living]

Here is an amazing opportunity, perhaps the chance of a lifetime: you could come to Ithaca and work with me! And a bunch of other people who love birds, of course. Good luck if you apply!

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is seeking a programmer/analyst to work as part of a terrestrial acoustic monitoring initiative to monitor the flight-calls of nocturnally migrating birds. This position had a primary emphasis on creating user interfaces for automated detection, classification, and visualization systems. We are seeking someone with a passion for studying bird migration and flight calls, someone who is excited about developing cutting edge tools that will be a cornerstone of the next generation, state of the art acoustic monitoring of migrant birds.

This position is available in the Bioacoustics Research Program - it has been posted on the Jobs at Cornell on-line posting and application system at - if you know of anyone that might be interested in this position, please have them apply.

BARN Software Developer
Programmer Analyst II - Band E
2 positions available

· Contribute to the development and maintenance of web-based sound analysis software tools and support ongoing and future research in the field of animal bioacoustics at the Bioacoustics Research Program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Current scientific research projects supported by our software involve the study of communication systems and behavior in whales, elephants, migrating birds, endangered birds, and other birds.
· Under guidance of project lead, perform tasks to help move forward the overall set of tools provided by the group through the BARN project, The BARN project develops tools to support the creation of networked annotated sound libraries. Our web-based tools allow users to maintain and richly annotate sound collections in support of their research.
· Collaborate with local and remote end users to answer questions, investigate and recreate problems, and recommend resolutions.
· Meet with team to discuss solutions, take advice from lead regarding the implementation of solutions.
· Implement data conversion utilities, user interface features, and other software features designed by self or others to fit into established architecture.
· Develop features to facilitate the acquisition, curation, scanning, review, and reporting of acoustic data and metadata to support the field of bioacoustics research.
· Tasks may include but are not limited to file upload methods; metadata manipulation and storage; web browser-based user-initiated scan, review, and reporting; integration of signal processing components into a workflow; and development of tagging and filtering schemes.
· Develop software using a variety of technologies (Ruby, Javascript, RDBMS, MATLAB, LAMP, others as needed) to stretch the possibilities of the system for the research community.
· Collaborate within a team environment to provide documentation to developers and end users for the best ways to use the software.
· Provide consultation and training to staff, faculty, students, and visiting research colleagues to use the innovative technologies available.

Required Qualifications:
· Bachelor's degree with three to four years relevant experience or equivalent combination.
· Experience maintaining source code using version control.
· Experience with software design and development using two or more of the following technologies: Ruby (various frameworks and tools: Rails, RSpec, Sinatra, Capistrano, gems), Javascript (jQuery, JSON, Processing.js), RDBMS (SQL, MySQL, SQLite, JDBC), MATLAB (signal, image processing, data-visualization), LAMP maintenance and administration.
· Proven ability to learn new programming languages quickly.
· Experience with web-design for data-driven and/or multi-media applications.
· Must be able to communicate technical language clearly in layman's terms.
· Demonstrable skills in problem solving, critical thinking, and clear written and oral communication.
· Ability to work well with a diverse group in a professional and respectful work environment.

Preferred Qualifications:
· Master's degree desired in computer science, computer engineering, or related field preferred.
· Coursework in statistics, machine-learning, data-mining or database systems.
· Experience applying and developing data-mining strategies and systems; knowledge of analytical and statistical tools, as well as general tools for graphing and figure drawing.
· Experience performing independent literature searches and scientific research.
· Experience writing software in Python, Java, and/or PHP.
· Experience working on software projects outside a classroom environment.
· Knowledge of and experience using XML.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Citizen's Guide: Obstacles in Temperate North America [I'd Love to Save the World]

Previous entries to these updates to the Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation highlighted challenges to migratory birds that occur on their Latin American wintering grounds and on their migratory routes. Next, challenges birds face in temperate North America. My comments follow.

The Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation
Obstacles in Temperate North America

Migrant birds face tremendous threats on their breeding grounds. Only 250 years ago, the forests of North America provided ideal habitat for many migrants. By 1920, however, much of the landscape had been deforested. In recent decades, many of the forests cut in the 19th and 20th centuries have regrown or been replanted, especially in the Northeast. But problems for forest-dwelling birds remain.

Why? Much of the forest that does remain has been fragmented, that is, parceled into small blocks by urbanization, agriculture, timber harvesting, and other human activities. Such fragmentation seems to be a serious problem for some neotropical migrants. Unlike large forest tracts, small, scattered woodlands present numerous edges -- boundaries created by roads, fields, housing developments, and possibly clearcuts. these edges can allow open-land predators such as jays and crows, which feed on songbirds and their nestlings, to intrude into the forest. Creeping urbanization has also allowed increases in predators that live and thrive around humans, such as raccoons, opossums, and cats.

Fragmentation is a particular problem for neotropical migrants because of their nesting habits. Most neotropical migrants build open, cup-shaped nests that are relatively easy for predators to spot. They also tend to lay only a few eggs each year. Many nest on the ground, making them susceptible to predation.

Edge habitat and open-cup nests also cause birds to be susceptible to cowbird parasitism. Unlike most other birds, Brown-headed Cowbirds do not build their own nests; instead, they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, sometimes destroying the eggs of the unwitting host. And even if the host eggs are not destroyed the cowbird eggs generally hatch first and the large, aggressive cowbird checks crowd out the host young, killing them directly, or killing them indirectly by eating all the food brought by the parents.

At the time of European settlement, Brown-headed Cowbirds lived in the Great Plains of North America. in the past 150 years, however, as forest has been cleared for agriculture, cowbirds have expanded their range dramatically. The number of cowbirds has skyrocketed, and so has the number of bird species they are known to parasitize -- now over 200. In central Illinois, where very little forest remains, cowbirds parasitize 75 percent of the nests of some species of migratory birds, such as the Wood Thrush.

Forest fragmentation seems to be less of a problem in western North America, where migrants face a different set of challenges. The West is made up of diverse habitats -- montane forest, riparian (streamside) habitat, desert, grassland, and shrubsteppe, to name a few. Neotropical migrants live in all of these habitats at some time of year, but most species nest in montane forests and riparian areas, which make up just a small percentage of western lands. Consequently, populations of western migratory birds may be smaller than those of eastern species.

As in the East, habitat degradation is a key factor in the declines of some western species. For example, disruption of riparian habitat by cattle grazing and agriculture has enabled cowbirds to take advantage of several species of migrants that nest in these areas. As much as 95 percent of the riparian habitat has been lost in many western states. As a result, populations of species that depend on riparian habitat, such as the southwestern Willow Flycatcher and Yellow Warbler, are in trouble. Riparian woodlands in California have lost most of their bird species.

Declines of grassland species, such as Grasshopper and Lark Sparrows, are also cause for concern. According to Breeding Bird Survey data, grassland bird species are showing steeper and more consistent declines over the past 25 years than are other birds. While these trends are not entirely understood, biologists suspect that changes such as the disappearance of the great bison herds from the Great Plans and habitat loss due to agricultural activity are factors in teh declines. In many states grassland habitat has nearly vanished. In others, grasslands have become fragmented, a process analogous to forest fragmentation, so bird species that require large areas of this habitat are unable to nest successfully. the growing body of scientific research will shed more light on grassland birds and their populations changes in the years to come.

Russell Greenberg and Susan Lumpkin, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, National Zoological Park, Washington, DC 20008

Arthur Weissman, Green Seal, 1250 23rd St. NW, Washington, DC 20037

This section has been excerpted in its entirety. Author information and article text current as of 1995.

Greenberg, R., S. Lumpkin, and A. Weissman. 1995. Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation, Bonney, R., S. Carlson, and M. Fischer, eds. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

I'm going to let this one go right to the comments: your thoughts and suggestions welcome and encouraged!


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Citizen's Guide: Obstacles Along Migration Routes [I'd Love to Save the World]

In the last entry to the Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation we learned about challenges to migratory birds that occur on their Latin American wintering grounds. Next up, the trials and tribulations of migration. My comments follow.

The Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation
Obstacles Along Migration Routes

During migration, birds use an astonishing array of habitats, from boreal coniferous forests and temperate-zone deciduous forests to grasslands, scrublands, and tropical rainforest. All these habitats must support the birds' need s for food and protection from weather and predators. Clearly, the presence of suitable habitat along migratory routes is crucial to the birds' ability to survive and reproduce successfully each year. The longer a bird must search for a satisfactory stopover area, the less time and energy it has to complete migration, set up and defend a territory, and raise young.

During spring and fall, neotropical migrants funnel through small areas where they rest and feed before beginning nonstop flights over land or water. Many species make 20-, 40-, and even 80-hour nonstop flights over water, so coastal habitats are particularly important stopover zones. Unfortunately, these areas are disappearing under a welter of condominiums and vacation homes. Other prime stopover sites, such as those along rivers, are being destroyed as well.

Greenberg, R., S. Lumpkin, and A. Weissman. 1995. Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation, Bonney, R., S. Carlson, and M. Fischer, eds. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Russell Greenberg and Susan Lumpkin, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, National Zoological Park, Washington, DC 20008

Arthur Weissman, Green Seal, 1250 23rd St. NW, Washington, DC 20037

My comments:
As all previous sections, this one has been excerpted in its entirety. Author information and article text current as of 1995.

When thinking about migration and stopover habitats I'm immediately reminded of an article David Sibley wrote that appeared in an airline magazine. The analogy he creates that sticks out is that of our own travel:

You travel for a reason, and with some assurance that your travel will be successful, but what if you flew from Portland, Oregon, to Springfield, Missouri, only to find that the Springfield airport had been turned into a shopping mall and there was nowhere to land? What would happen to the Baird’s sandpipers if that lake in Ecuador was drained for agriculture?

Clearly, the major issue is habitat loss, not being able to find suitable stopover sites to rest and refuel. But I suspect in our 2009 world it would be worthwhile to highlight that just getting to stopover sites is a becoming a challenge. The problems created by the myriad of communication towers has certainly increased since this article's publication in 1995, and the construction of the myriad-squared wind turbines that are underway should be included as a prevailing concern. Development of strip malls and condos should in no way be lessened, but hopefully we can have an impact on how wind farm development evolves and how communications towers are lighted.

What other migratory issues should be highlighted in this section? Your comments and suggestions are not only welcome, but encouraged!


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Birding Tales [A Bird in the Hand]

I love reading birding email lists, and from time to time there are really great stories that come through. The following post, a rare bird report submitted to the New York State Avian Records Committee (NYSARC), came across Cayugabirds-L this weekend. It's a fascinating encounter with a bird seldom-seen anywhere, and just about never in New York. It's also a call to expect the unexpected.

It also serves up some food for thought that has been bandied about for a long time: how many birds go undetected by observers on migration? How many species go undetected?

17 October, 2009
From: John L. Confer
Biology Department
Ithaca College,
Ithaca, NY 14850


Yellow Rail (Coturnicops noveboracensis) report.

On the afternoon of 17 Oct, 2009 I was walking through a ~60 acre hay field that was mowed this past July. This site is adjacent to the Goetchius Preserve, owned by the Finger Lakes Land Trust, about one mile west of the eastern edge of Tompkins County, NY and bordered to the east by Flatiron Rd, in the Town of Caroline. The coordinates are N42o, 25’30”, W76o 17’42”.

The mixed vegetation averaged about a foot high with patches of taller goldenrod and some areas with shorter vegetation. My dog, Belle Flower, began pouncing in the grass with stiff front legs and then grabbed something in her mouth. I fully expected the creature to be a dead vole, as has happened in the past. I pried her mouth open and was shocked to find it was a bird. I opened my hand and rolled the bird over for a better look. I was actually flabbergasted when it started to move. I’ve banded thousands of birds, but having just gotten it from Bell’s mouth, I was certain this one was dead and left my hand open. In a few seconds, this creature, which I had thought was certainly dead, flew out of my hand.

Frankly, I could have gotten a much more detailed view of this hand-held bird if I had anticipated it was well enough to get up and fly a few seconds after I removed it from the jaws of death. In fact this observation might be the shortest view of a potential NYSAR bird on record. Nonetheless, some of the features were seen in hand with complete certainty, enough so that I offer this report. I am quite certain of the features I saw, which I think are sufficient to definitively identify the bird. However, I know that there are features that you might well expect, which I did not have the time to observe. Please don’t pillage me too harshly for not noting several other features.

Note that this is only the description of the encounter, though the Cayugabirds-L post did include Dr. Confer's responses to the NYSARC's Rare Bird Report questions (such as description of the bird's appearance, flight pattern, and how it similar species were eliminated in the identification process).

So, have you had any crazy encounters like this? Or know of any great stories like this from your area?


Monday, October 19, 2009

Change of Plans [Turn and Face the Strange]

My 40th birthday trip was coming together. We picked a destination and our itinerary was taking shape. The twin themes of this trip, Balance and Change, were emerging quickly, with a third soon to appear.

The Balance challenge was clear: how to spend as much time as possible seeing new birds while keeping a 5-year-old entertained? Reina is perfectly happy on nature walks and birding stops, but up to a point. Anyone with kids, or socially maladaptive non-birding partners, knows how unpleasant it is for everyone involved (or just nearby) when disinterest sets in. My hardest challenge was scheduling our trips with Reina's threshold in mind.

Change, of course, is inevitable, the best laid schemes and all that. Almost immediately we found our plans had to change: Asa Wright Nature Center, heralded as Nirvana on earth by every birder that sets foot on Trinidad, wasn't available as our primary lodging. The vast majority of trip reports and trip itineraries always stayed at AWNC, but when we found out kids under eight weren't welcome for overnight stays we had to regroup.

I couldn't think of any alternative mentioned in those reports. Images of settling for a Trinidadian Holiday Inn or Super8 in the bowels of Port of Spain, far from any birding site we'd want to visit, crossed my mind with pangs of nausea. This trip wasn't shaping up the way I expected.

I freely admit to quoting wisdom from wherever I find it, including old Monty Python skits. "Adapt, adopt, and improve" became my mantra as I searched for alternate accommodations, and a wonderful things started to happen. Maybe deviating from the standard T&T birding trips that every other birder experiences was a good thing.

Yes, I'm talking additional blog fodder! Clearly, the birds were going to be front and center, but now, instead of copying the same "rum punch on AWNC's verandah" theme as everyone else, I could offer potential T&T visitors insights to other options. I could compare my bird lists and experiences from locations I ferreted out to the standard package they signed on to. Perhaps I could score some free lodging or excursions in exchange for publicity!

That's my lemonade making attempt. Yes, I can offer a differing view to the standard AWNC package, but I didn't score anything free. (Note to self, work on the marketing power of this blog.)

So, here is an overview of the secondary itinerary we created. I will be writing in more detail about each stop, including informal reviews of the lodging, the birding; the whole roti (we didn't see enchiladas anywhere, but rotis are a reasonable substitute).

  • Day 1: Arrive late, stay at Pax Guest House, Tunapuna, Trinidad
  • Day 2: Bird Mt. St. Benedict, coasts and wetlands, and Caroni Swamp.
  • Day 3: Bird savanna and grassland sites, stay at Laguna Mar, Blanchisseuse, Trinidad.
  • Day 4: Bird in the forests of the Northern Range.
  • Day 5: Fly to Tobago, stay Naturalist Beach Resort, Castara, Tobago.
  • Day 6: Bird Tobago: Main Ridge Forest Reserve and Little Tobago Island.
  • Day 7: Tobago birding in the morning, then fly to Trinidad, returning to Pax Guest House.
  • Day 8: Early flight back to U.S.
Up next, the trip! And photos, I swear. Oh, and I'll get to that third theme I hinted at but didn't identify. Maybe you can guess?


Friday, October 16, 2009

More Vacation Planning [What We Gonna Did]

Now that the hard part of picking a country to visit was out of the way (by a process delineated earlier) I could get down to the serious business: the itinerary. That may sound somewhat benign, but only until you realize that beneath my mellow and laid-back exterior lies the intensely anal-retentive persona of recidivist OCD patient. I would now need to chart out every minute of every day, knowing where we'd be, give or take a square meter or two. Maybe two. And layered on top of those parameters, what birds would be there? What birds would be likely, what would be within the realm of possibility but in the don't-hold-your-breath category?

Time to dig out the books and scour the Internet reports.

First task, figure out what birding areas Trinidad has to offer. Not unexpectedly, rainforests. But also dry forests and savannas. Obviously wetlands and coasts. Plus a whole sister island called Tobago.

To check off as many species as possible we'd have to spend time underneath the multiple-canopied habitat to find forest birds, in grasslands for birds adapted to open habitats, on rocky coasts scoping for pelagic species, beaches and mudflats for shorebirds, inland wetlands and/or rice fields for rails, crakes, blackbirds, and others, and we'd have to pull the car over to examine any raptor we came across, perched, soaring, or otherwise . . . man, this could be dizzying.

But Trinidad birding is weighted towards the central and northern regions, likely due to the industrial presence south side of the island. I can't say first hand, but it sounds as though it's pocked with oil wells and refineries. In fact, every gringo we met on Trinidad was affiliated with the oil industry, the exceptions were those that were tourists or owned a guest house.

Either way, given our time frame we opted not to route in the south side of the island. Given more time we would have explored the southern sites outlined in Murphy's Birdwatchers' Guide to Trinidad & Tobago and what turned up in Internet searches, but for this trip our choice was clear: stick to areas on the northern side of the island. Options we focused on included:
  • cruising Blanchisseuse Road for forest birds at a variety of elevations,
  • joining an evening trip to Caroni Swamp to see the Scarlet Ibises come in to roost and, hopefully, find a few specialty mangrove-affiliated species,
  • scoping Waterloo for shorebirds, gulls, and terns
  • surveying the Caroni Rice Fields for rails and other freshwater wetland species,
  • visiting Waller Field, Aripo Savanna, Aripo Livestock Station, and the Arena Forest for low-elevation and grassland birds,
  • exploring Nariva Swamp on the east coast for a different suite of coastal wetland birds,
  • and, naturally, staying at Asa Wright Nature Center - its reputation alone made that decision a no brainer.
Oh, and Tobago. Not a twin sister of Trinidad, but completely unique avifauna. Reading through the distributions in the field guide I was surprised at how many species are on one "T" or the other, but not both. The phrases, "Absent from Tobago" and "No records for Trinidad" showed up more frequently than I expected. Clearly we'd have to get over to Tobago for a couple of days, but should we take the cheaper, but 5 and a half hour, ferry? Or splurge on the 20 minute plane ride? We'd deal with that later.

Our Trinidad plans changed almost immediately. It turns out that staying at Asa Wright would be prohibitively expensive on our budget, even in the "off" season (aka, the low-, rainy-, or the more euphemistic-sounding "green"-season). But more to the point they have a policy that disallows children under eight staying at the center, so it wasn't really an option anyway. After flirting with the idea of letting five-year-old Reina get her own lodging somewhere else we thought about staying at Simla, aka the William Beebe Tropical Research Station,, the neighboring facility that houses researchers. I had been considering doing some sound recording anyway, and Donna is collecting slime mold samples this semester while on sabbatical. Sampling a few sites in the mountains of Trinidad would surely be novel for slime mold research.

We ultimately decided this was vacation, we didn't want to be tied to anything, so Simla was out. We started to re-evaluate our options, where could we set up base camp where we'd be lulled to sleep by Tropical Screech-owls, Little Tinamous, Ferruginous Pygmy-owls, hopefully a nightjar or two, and still make all of the relevant day trips we had planned?

Hmmm, maybe this wasn't going to be as straight-forward as I originally thought.

What's next? Find out here!


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Vacation Planning [Where the Birds Always Sing]

For those with short memories (like me), or those that don't read everything I post here (also like me), I offer this background to our recent trip to Trinidad and Tobago. You can also read about our then-far-off trip in a post from last April. - Mike

It's not often you find yourself on a tropical island after making an offhand comment. Well, unless you live on a tropical island, then you can't really help it. But my point is I've never found myself on a tropical island because of something I tossed out without really thinking.

Last autumn, long before I thought about staring my 40th birthday squarely in the eye, my wife asked, "So, what do you want this year? I mean, 40. It's a big one. Maybe a new guitar?"

I'm satisfied with my current stringed instrument status and there wasn't anything else really on my wish-list horizon. It wasn't until December, probably while enviously reading about someone else's exotic birding trip, I mused, "You know what? I want to travel. Somewhere new. Where there are lots of new birds to see. Lots of birds. I want to be overwhelmed, reduced to weeping and cowering at the sheer volume of new species. New genera . . . no, new families of birds."

I guess I said it out loud, and within earshot of Donna's bat-like hearing, so we discussed the options. After a few days of financial analysis, some debate, a touch of arguing followed by copious amounts of begging and pleading, my logic finally prevailed. "All right, we can make that happen," spoken with just the right amount of resignation. This would be a birthday to remember.

Now, where to go? Initial thought: Peru. I'd been talking with colleagues at the Cornell Lab (including Tom Schulenberg, author of The Birds of Peru) and Peru kept coming up, usually instilling a faraway, dreamy look in everyone's eyes. But that's just one possibility. What about Ecuador? Chile? Brazil? Panama? Belize? Mexico?

I had already ruled out trips to Africa, southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and others, I felt those are more in line with the half-century mark. Staying within my home hemisphere was more of a 40-ish celebration.

But in there lay a rub: I didn't want a trip just for me, I wanted to go with my wife and daughter. I love birding pre-dawn to after-dark and racking up lifers as much as the next lister, but I wasn't anxious to spend 3,000-plus (after travel) of our well-saved US dollars so I could be led around a new country, bird by bird. Well, I was anxious, but it wouldn't mean as much. Of course I wanted to see lots of birds, but I wanted my family to experience the vacation. I would have my cake and I would it eat it, too, dammit.

The question became whether my target countries offered enough to entertain a birding-friendly spouse and a five-year-old. She's great on hikes and experiencing nature, but to a point. What about a place that offers new birds, interesting hikes and critters, and beaches? What about the Caribbean?

I'll spare you the island-by-island evaluation, but by early spring we ultimately, and happily, settled on twin Caribbean islands that lie on the South American plate. Not a big endemic list (one: Trinidad Piping Guan), but a reasonable species list (467, according to a recent check on Avibase), lots of interesting families represented, easy to get to, and travel domestically once there. Perfect. And T&T is a well-established birding destination, meaning lots of information available about where to stay, when to go, what to do.

The "when" question was answered by the other obligations already on the calendar, which whittled away at dates until we were left with the beginning of October.

The next phase of research was set to begin. Where do those 467 birds spend their time when they're on T&T? And how do we route them into our vacation? That turned out to be a fairly easy question to answer.

At least in theory.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Citizen's Guide: Obstacles in Latin America [I'd Love to Save the World]

When we left the introduction we were about to learn why population declines in neotropical migrants are occurring. The first focus is on challenges on the wintering grounds. My comments follow.

The Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation
Obstacles in Latin America

Throughout much of Latin America, tropical forests are rapidly being converted to cropland and open grazing land by slash-and-burn agricultural techniques. Such forest destruction obviously creates problems for migrant birds that depend on forests for winter habitat. Another problem is geographical. The land mass inhabited by migrants in winter is much smaller than the vast breeding area -- all of North America. this means that wintering areas are often packed with five to eight times as many birds as are found in the same area on the breeding grounds. Therefore, the destruction of just a small amount of tropical forest can have a huge effect on some bird populations. Species restricted to a small wintering range, such as the Cerulean Warbler, are at the greatest risk. And areas with the greatest concentrations of migrants - Mexico, Central America, the Greater Antilles, and portions of the Andean mountain range in South America - also have some of the highest rates of deforestation.

Neotropical migrants wintering near cropland area are also threatened by pesticides, because the toxins concentrate in the birds' fat reserves. Some pesticides, including chlorinated hydrocarbons such as DDT, have been outlawed for use in the United States but are still used legally in Latin American and Caribbean countries. U.S. companies supply these pesticides.

Greenberg, R., S. Lumpkin, and A. Weissman. 1995. Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation, Bonney, R., S. Carlson, and M. Fischer, eds. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Russell Greenberg and Susan Lumpkin, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, National Zoological Park, Washington, DC 20008

Arthur Weissman, Green Seal, 1250 23rd St. NW, Washington, DC 20037

My comments:
As the first two entries this section has been excerpted in its entirety; the author information and article text current as of 1995.

When we hear about the effects of deforestation we almost always, if not completely always, consider the straight-up loss of habitat: less habitat means less birds. The ideal, of course, is to keep the habitat contiguous; if it must be degraded, keep the patches as large as possible, and joined to allow movement of individuals.

But what I find often escapes the general public's notice is that equal patch sizes are not equal in bird density. George Orwell might have said all acres of suitable habitat are created equal, but some of those acres are more equal than others. As the author's point out here, an acre of habitat in Latin America is more equal than an acre of habitat in North America. By highlighting the density difference in geography, that removing a hectare in the neotropics has a much more far-reaching effect than cutting a patch the similar size on the more-spread-out breeding ranges, they drive home an important aspect that reaches beyond mere habitat loss - it's a loss for far more birds than elsewhere in the Americas (this is not making the case that it's OK to cut larger swaths of the boreal forest).

Pesitcide-wise, I'm not sure where we stand these days. Are Latin American countries still using chemicals outlawed in the U.S.? I find myself wondering what improvements have been made in land use in Latin America, and what has deteriorated over the past 15 years.

Similarly, what about including recent results from studies on patch sizes, using familiar birds as specific examples? What's the critical size where you lose certain at-risk and common species? Or if clutch sizes or breeding success varies with the number of individuals in a patch?

Or do we start to lose the forest and only see trees wit specific details like these?

Back to:


Monday, October 12, 2009

A Walk in the Woods [Put the Lime in the Coconut]

The woods in our region are bursting with color, an event that shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who has spent an October in the northeastern US. The air is crisp and cool downright cold, the sky a swath of pale blue above that darkens towards the horizons, punctuated by dozens of airy, aimlessly wandering clouds.

I haven't posted about any bird sightings or movements from our area as I haven't paid attention to what's been going on in our yard, or our region, for the first 10 days of October. Yeah, it's kind of tough to do when you're offline and 2,300 miles away. Not that it's tough to find an Internet connection on Trinidad and Tobago, they're there if you really want one, it's tough to be distracted from what's all around you.

blanchisseuse-Arima Road, TrinidadThe view along Blanchisseuse-Arima Road, Trinidad.

The woods we've been walking through aren't the temperate maple-oak assemblages we call home, but tropical mash-ups that include teak and nutmeg covered with hundreds of epiphytes and wrist-thick vines. We hunted among the foliage for glimpses of trogons, bellbirds, and manakins in the rainforest. Tropical Kingbirds, Great Kiskadees, and Ruddy Ground-doves lined the streets while Magnificant Frigatebirds, Brown Pelicans, and Brown Boobies soared above rocky coves as well as those lined with sandy beaches and palm trees.

Castara Bay, TobagoCastara Bay, Tobago.

I'll be recounting our trip over the next few weeks, narrating our adventures, giving recommendations based on our experiences, and of course presenting as many sights and sounds as I can. Stay tuned, but please be patient: I have lots of pictures and eBird checklists to process!


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Citizen's Guide: Introduction [I'd Love to Save the World]

Here's the beginning of the introduction to the Citizen's Guide. My comments follow.

The Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation

The tools and techniques for bird conservation described in this booklet can be applied to just about any kind of bird. The impetus for this book, however, came from a particular group of birds known as "neotropical migrants." Indeed, concern for these birds is so great that an entire program to conserve them was initiated in 1990. It's called Partners in Flight, and is described on page 5.

What is a neotropical migrant, anyway?

Quite simply, neotropical migrants are birds that spend their summers in Canada and the United States and their winters in Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America and South America (the region known as the New World tropics, or neotropics). Although the name "neotropical migrant" sounds exotic, we're actually talking about common birds, and lots of them -- at least 250 species, nearly one-third of the birds that breed in North America (see the list on pg. 31). These include many familiar birds such as warblers, tanagers, thrushes, and orioles.

Why the concern about neotropical migrants?

Because in recent years, some have declined in numbers. To understand why it helps to know a little about the birds' complex life cycles. First, migratory birds require summer habitat in temperate North America where they can nest and raise their young. Then, during spring and fall they need stopover habitats on their migration routes -- places that are safe to rest in and rich in insects or berries to fuel their long-distance flights. Migration routes run for hundreds or even thousands of miles, crossing numerous political boundaries, until the birds reach their destinations -- the wintering grounds. There, they must identify new food sources in unfamiliar surroundings and compete for food with residents such as White-tailed Trogons and Broad-billed Motmots.

It's a complicated scenario, one that can be easily disrupted by human activities. Indeed, some species of neotropical migrants have shown significant declines. Consider the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), a volunteer bird-counting effort conducted by about 2,000 birders each June (see page 16). In eastern North America, where some of the best information is available, the BBS suggests that 75 percent of populations of forest-dwelling neotropical migrant species declined between 1978 and 1987. More recently, several of these species increased in number, but some, such as the Cerulean Warbler, have not recovered. And woodland birds are not the only species experiencing declines. Grassland birds such as the Grasshopper Sparrow, which declined 4.5 percent each year between 1966 and 1991, are also in trouble.

Further concern arises from the work of Sidney Gauthreaux, an ornithologist who studies bird migration with radar. His research suggests that the number of birds migrating over the Gulf of Mexico in spring has decreased by half since the mid 1960s.

Let's look at why the declines are occurring.

Greenberg, R., S. Lumpkin, and A. Weissman. 1995. Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation, Bonney, R., S. Carlson, and M. Fischer, eds. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Russell Greenberg and Susan Lumpkin, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, National Zoological Park, Washington, DC 20008

Arthur Weissman, Green Seal, 1250 23rd St. NW, Washington, DC 20037

My comments:
As before, this section has been excerpted in its entirety. Author information and article text current as of 1995.

The content, again, seems timeless, a broad-yet-succinct introduction to neotropic migrant birds. My first thought is much of the content works today as it did in the mid-'90s, though the trends and examples from the BBS should be updated with the most recent analyses. And what about other population studies? Do any come to mind that would be appropriate here? Other thoughts or comments?

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