Tuesday, October 31, 2006

"The Gulf Coast of Tennessee"

...As I'm told the late Don Manning dubbed it.

I finally made it to a Tennessee Ornithological Society meeting last weekend, in Clarksville, and had a great time putting faces and personalities to many names. And on Sunday we made an expedition to the Paris Landing - Big Sandy - Pace Point area, on Kentucky Lake just south of the Kentucky line. Pace Point is the location named in that Don Manning quote. We drove over 50 miles, but all the locations we visited were within about 4 miles of each other, often within line of sight. I tell ya, the place lived up to its nickname. For the day we had SIX (!) species of gulls, and large rafts of coots ducks, grebes, and loons. Plus some terns, a White-winged Scoter and three Am. White Pelicans for the closing act. For those who might have limited knowledge of U.S. Geography, Tennessee is landlocked and about 400 miles from the real Gulf coast. It's also 400+ miles from the Great Lakes, the Atlantic Coast, or any other major body of water. So congregations of waterbirds like this are a real treat here! For the record, the gulls were: Laughing, Franklin's, Bonaparte's Ring-billed, Herring, and Lesser Black-backed.

A note I made for the future: Even in interior North America, keep a good European field guide handy. Just try to find decent illustrations of all the various immature plumages of something like a Lesser Back-backed Gull in the American guides! Actually, it's not a bad idea to always have good worldwide guides for seabirds, gulls, and shorebirds available just in case. Even with our native North American species, these references usually have much more extensive detail on plumages, behavior, vocalizations, and potential confusions than you'll find in the American books.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Bye Bye Birdies: scary trends

This evening I was looking at e-Bird data, particularly checking for regions where there is enough "old" data (pre-1990) to maybe get some sense of decade-to-decade trends. In most regions there really isn't much older information to speak of; but one of the places there is, is the Piedmont. This is the plateau between the Appalachians and the Coastal Plain from Alabama to Maryland; pretty much the I-85 corridor and much of metro DC. This is where I grew up (Atlanta), and some of that pre-1990 data is actually mine. So I looked at the abundance bar graphs for before 1990 and after 2000 and compared species by species. It was frightening.

As a preface, note that the Piedmont has underone MASSIVE and RAPID land use change and population growth in this time. The earlier landscape of farms and oak-pine woodlots separating discrete cities has been replaced wholesale with suburb upon suburb. Over vast areas the suburbs have run together; what we used to call BosWash (the northeastern urban corridor from Boston-Washington) is now more like Bostingham, having grown all the way to Alabama. This is in fact one of the major reasons Peggy and I do not live there anymore. And what has happened to the common birds here, in my quick and dirty estimate?

Well, for four species, the change has been good: Canada Goose, Ring-billed Gull, Fish Crow, and House Wren have all increased. But for the others, it is a catastrophe. About 90 common (at least formerly common) species seem to have declined notably region-wide; nearly 50 of these have declined quite substantially, many to the point that a species that was common in my youth is now rather scarce. This includes residents, breeders, winterers, and transients; it cuts across the habitat preferences, migratory patterns, and taxonomic groupings. We can't blame this on far-away lands; this is a home-grown distaster. Folks, 90 species is right about half of all the species that used to be common here.

A sampling of the once widespread species that appear to have dropped off sharply include: Northern Bobwhite, Green Heron, Great Crested Flycatcher, White-eyed Vireo, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Swainson's Thrush, Brown Thrasher, Tennessee Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Field Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Eastern Meadowlark, Rusty Blackbird, and Orchard Oriole. The main thing all these birds have in common is that they don't like neat, tidy, Dixie-style suburban landscaping. They like brushpiles, weedy edges, farm ponds with brambly shores, mixed species woodlots, underbrush, field and pastures... all the landscape elements that vanish with residential development. When I was a kid in Atlanta, all these things still existed even around the older neighborhoods in the city. But thanks to "infill" development they are a thing of the past. The Piedmont is one of the worst case examples, perhaps; but the pattern is happening everywhere.

Land use, folks. Right here at home. This is the biggest threat to our birds and all the rest of the entities that comprise our ecosystems. We can fight all the global warming and tropical deforestation we want, but if all we have left back home is shade trees, manicured lawns, strip malls, and soccer fields it hardly matters. Weeds and woods and willows and brambles and "trash trees" can be incorporated into our landscapes from downtown to the outermost edges of the suburbs. Sad, that it is landscaping fashion and the inexpensive gasoline-powered lawnmower that are eradicating our birds.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Blast from the Past

Talked to an old birding buddy, Chuck Hunter, on the phone today for about two hours; first time he and I have chatted in a decade or so and the longest conversation we've had in about 30 years. We met sometime in the late 1970's (we were both teenagers) when he guided me birding around his home town of Jacksonville FL for a weekend. He showed me my first Burrowing Owl and Great Black-backed Gull, back when the gull was a good bird in those parts. We corresponded for a while, and last ran into each other at a Partners in Flight meeting in Colorado in the 90's. So we had a lot of catching up and many war stories to cover. It was great fun! He's living in my ancestral stomping ground of Atlanta now. Lots of gossip about mutual acquaintances, tales of most amusing and embarassing birding blunders, and "whatever became of ol' whats-iz-face?" Man, the birding world has changed so much since then. We ultimately had to wind up the conversation because Peggy was due home soon and I hadn't done anything about supper yet. One thing that he did mention that has left me kind of confused, though. It sounds like David Sibley was in Athens at the same time as I was (1984-1992, at least part time), but I can't dredge up a single recollection of him. I would have expected him to be travelling in the same mostly UGA-associated birding circles that I did, and I remember well many of that cadre (Barny Dunning, Peter Yaukey, Chris Haney, many more of Josh Laerm and Ron Pulliam's students and post docs, etc.) but I can't place a Sibley in it at all. Maybe he was there before I was.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Warbleriest State in the Land of The Free verse 2

Hard freeze (21F in the orchard) this morning. Also in the orchard this morning was an Orange-crowned Warbler, first of the year. That little green blob brings my tickies for 2006 in Tennessee to 37 wood warblers. This is all of the "eastern" warblers except for the highly local (and none of those localities being anywhere near Tennessee) Kirtland's, and the Bird-That-Even-Out-Phantoms-the-Ivorybill, Bachman's Warbler. And all but one of them without leaving the boundaries of this dinky little County; 33 of them without even leaving our own 38 acre homestead.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Freeze prep

With NWS forecast lows in the mid 30s coming up in the next few days, we're likely to hit the upper 20's down here in the icebox. So it's time to round up all the green tomatoes and find space inside for all the houseplants.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Mellow Sparrows

With the arrival in the last few days of wintering Swamp and Song Sparrows, and the continued presence of transient Lincoln's Sparrows, we now have a full representation of every species in the genus Melospiza poking about in the weeds and brush in the orchard.


..in the absence of much actual discussion, the Ivorybill chatter online seems to have become almost entirely about rumors and opinions. Birdforum in particular has become Birdrumors. Pick your rumor: Cornell is goint to retract! New photos will be released in February! They're both there; whichever you prefer to believe, you can find heresay from an anonymous source to support you. And then we have the rumors about opinions: rumors and speculation about which "big-name birders" are thinking what and aligning themselves with whom. Entertaining, it may be. Meaningful, it ain't.

Florida Ivorybill synopsis

I originally posted this buried deep in the comments; here's a slightly extended version.

The debate about the Choctawhatchee Ivorybill reports was over an hour after it started. Once everyone had looked at the online articles, it was done. Each of our reactions to their results is 100% determined by the effects of the 18 months that have passed since the Arkansas announcement. Minds that were going to change, changed in that first hour, and aren't likely to shift from their new positions much until there is The Photo or another year without The Photo. If you thought anything but a photo is meaningless, you find the Florida results meaningless. If you think audio is valuable, you find the Florida audio valuable. If you thought the Arkansas audio was useless, you think the Florida audio is useless. And so on. The only place where there has been any shift is among those of us who put stronger credence in sight records. We are almost exclusively long-time serious birders; the exceptions are hunters or other sorts of field biologists. We see ourselves in the Florida team. We identify with them much more than with the Cornell Mega-Expedition. We find the Hicks field notes to be more detailed and convincing than the Arkansas field notes; hence we are more convinced. And of course those who find all sightings suspect consider us deluded idiots. This isn't gonna change, ever.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Time saving suggestion...

...for those who might report a sighting of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Here's a couple of things you should NOT include in your write-up; leaving these out will save grief and time for the rest of us.

1. "It was bigger than a Pileated."

If you didn't see the bird with a Pileated, at the same time and distance, don't say this. Neither you nor I nor anyone else can really judge this. I've seen thrushes turn into warblers when I got my binoculars on them, and swallows turn into raptors. Sure, a gross size estimate is fine -- "A very large black-and-white woodpecker," that sort of thing. But other than that, tell us about the bird's shape and actions, not an unsupportable detailed estimate of its size. Did the neck and tail and wings look long or short relative to the shape of a Pileated? That's fine, an experienced oberver can judge this. Maybe these things gave "an impression of larger size;" that's fine, too. That's recognized as a subjective impression, not a quantitative estimate. But don't get everyone all riled up by saying "it was too big to be a Pileated" if there was no Pileated available for direct comparison.

2. "I don't know what it was, but it definitely wasn't a Pileated."

This one has been said far too many times; I have no idea wat it is supposed to mean. The main thing it says to me is that the observer is either (a) unskilled, or (b) trying to stay out of trouble. Either way, it's a wishy-washiness that doesn't cast a good light on the report. I mean, let's get serious here. If you saw the bird well enough to tell it was a big black-and-white woodpecker, and you are certain it wasn't a Pileated, well then, ferkrissakes, what ELSE could it be? Unless you are suggesting a zoo escape or unprecedented intercontinental vagrant. If you didn't see the bird well enough to be 100% sure it was an Ivorybill, then NO you are NOT sure it definitely wasn't a Pileated, are you? And if you aren't even sure it was a large black-and-white woodpecker, then there's no sighting to discuss at all. So please, no more of this hedging and shuffling. Either conclude the bird you saw was an Ivorybill, and tell us this, or present your sighting without any definite conclusions and let us form our own opinions (which we will do anyway, of course).

Thank you for your attention. Here endeth the rant. Have fun in the swamps.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

From LGB to LBJ

As autumn advances, we'll shift from the season of the Little Green Bird to the season of the Little Brown Job. Tha vanguard of the LBJs has been a couple of Lincoln's Sparrows late last month, and two Sedge Wrens this morning. Sedge Wrens are actually a rather cute LBJ that I don't see all that often. Still waiting for the Swamp and Song Sparrows...

Monday, October 02, 2006

Interesting suggestion...

Pinched and paraphrased from Tom Bodett on Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me! last weekend...

The administration declares a "War on Drugs" and drug use goes up. Then they declare a "War on Terror" and terrorism goes up. Maybe they ought to declare a "War on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker."

(He actually said something along the lines of "some endangered woodpecker")

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Puppies gone home

Our puppies appeared yesterday morning on the Wisconsin Humane Society's page of available dogs. By the time we checked again at the end of the day, they were all gone.

So it seems their weeks of limbo are over. From the day their mother appeared under our house, abandoned, frightened, covered with ticks, hugely pregnant, a cloud of uncertainty has hung over them. Now, they have reached their permanent adoptive homes. May life be good for them!

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