Saturday, January 10, 2015

This week in birds - #140

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

Things are still distressingly quiet around my bird feeders, but finally this week I saw my first Pine Warbler of the season visiting the feeders. He joined my regular crew of an Orange-crowned Warbler, a few Carolina Chickadees, Carolina Wrens, Downy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, and, of course, House Sparrows.  Such a sparsity of feeder visitors in January is completely unprecedented in my memory. Usually, the traffic is busy and constant and very diverse at this time of year.

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While it is winter in the northern hemisphere, it is another very hot summer in the southern hemisphere, and in Australia, they are suffering through another season of unprecedented wildfires. In spite of the fact that 2014 was one of the hottest years on record in the country and the wildfires have been exacerbated by overheated conditions, the Conservative Prime Minister of the country, Tony Abbott, is from the James Inhofe school of thinking on global climate change - he denies that it is happening and refuses to take any steps that might ameliorate conditions.

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Last winter was a fantastic season for seeing Snowy Owls in the lower 48 states. Normally, a resident of the Arctic, the majestic birds showed up on a regular basis on bird counts in many parts of the country. But was that an anomaly or the new norm? Again this year the beautiful owls are causing excitement throughout many areas of the country. Perhaps they are permanently expanding their winter range.

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A new study from Wildlife Conservation Society shows that habitat change and degradation are not the only factors in birds' adaptation to exurban settings. Artificial light and human activities also greatly affect bird behavior.   

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For almost four years now, scientists have followed the wanderings of a gray wolf designated as OR-7 and I have reported on him several times in this space. After he was first collared in February 2011, he wandered south, becoming the first known wolf visitor to California since 1924 when the species was officially extirpated there. He wandered back and forth between California and Oregon, but eventually established a territory and settled in Southwestern Oregon. Now that he has acquired a mate and they have three pups, his pack has been given an official name - the Rogue pack. They are named for the area where they spend most of their time, the Rogue Wildlife Management Unit on the Upper Rogue River. 

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Lake Erie is one of the best places to find rare gull visitors to the continent in winter. Over a dozen species of gulls can be found routinely in Northeast Ohio along the shores of Erie in winter. It is a magnet for birders looking for that unusual gull species.

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For years, scientists have puzzled over the mysterious white-nose syndrome disease that is killing North American bats by the millions. They've not been able to understand how the disease operates, but, finally, a new study from the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Wisconsin offers a glimmer of light and perhaps some hope of being able to stop the epidemic that threatens to exterminate bats throughout the continent. They believe that the fungal disease depletes the energy of the little animals, eventually sapping their strength to an unsustainable degree and causing death. 

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Seabirds along the Pacific Coast are experiencing a massive die-off and it is unclear exactly why. They are starving, apparently, but why is sufficient food unavailable? Scientists theorize that the warming ocean waters have changed the kinds of fish that are available in the area so that the food that these birds need is just no longer there.   

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An eleven-year study follows American Redstarts and notes inter-annual changes in their plumage colors. The conclusion is that weather conditions, including rainfall and temperature, can affect the colors of the birds' plumage.  

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Urban wildlife is a rich area for study by researchers. Many kinds of wildlife such as coyotes, raccoons, opossums, skunks, to name just a few of the most obvious, and, of course, many species of birds are well adapted to making their living in the city and they thrive there. 

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A new study shows that sea ice is critically important to the winter wanderings of the Ivory Gulls between Canada and Greenland.

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Two vanishing prairie butterflies have been given protection under the Endangered Species Act. They are two members of the skipperling family - the Poweshiek Skipperling and the Dakota Skipperling. 

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Researchers have confirmed that sparrows make sense of sound in much the same way that humans do - they consider the context of the sound.

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Migrating birds generally fly at night and stop to feed and rest up during the day, but how do they decide where to stop? It's a decision on which their lives depend. They must be able to find sufficient food to replenish their energy and they must have cover and places to get away from the predators that are always on the lookout for them. Just one of the many factors that determine whether or not a bird will survive to fly another day.

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