Saturday, August 16, 2014

This week in birds - #121

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

One of the most widespread raptors in the country - or indeed on the continent - is the magnificent Red-tailed Hawk. It is the hawk that most people will have in mind if they simply say "hawk."  It is the one that all of the big hawks (the buteos) are compared to. This hawk comes in many different color phases from very pale to almost black, but each of them has some things in common, including a white speckled V-shaped mark on the back and a streaked belly band on a lighter belly. And, of course, every one of them has that characteristic which gives the species its name.
Yes, they all have that red tail. It's the thing that makes this one of the most easily recognizable hawks among a class of birds that can often be quite confusing.

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Another bird that is very widespread across the continent in summer is the Chimney Swift. I've often mentioned here that it is one of my favorite summer visitors. I love watching the fast-flying little cigar-shaped birds zipping around the skies over my yard on a late summer afternoon. We have left our chimney uncapped and so we have the little birds roosting in it and most summers nesting in it. (No, it's not a problem.) 

Anyway, it's good to know that the swifts can make themselves right at home in a variety of environments. Even in very urban settings. Even in New York City! All it takes is an open chimney or some similar structure where they can nest or roost. And they repay us by scouring the skies of insects.

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Gardeners are often revolted by hornworms on their plants and tend to take lethal action against them, but if they can just bring themselves to leave the critters alone, Nature will often take care of them. They are favorite hosts for parasitic wasps that lay their eggs on the caterpillars. The eggs turn to larvae which then devour their hosts. "Beetles in the Bush" has pictures and more information about the process.  

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Populations of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo have declined precipitously in the western part of the country. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering giving the bird "threatened" status under the Endangered Species Act. The proposal would designate critical habitat for the bird in nine western states.

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Bats are essential to the pollination of many plants that we depend on, and many species are voracious devourers of insects. What would be the consequences if bats should become extinct on this continent? The widespread destruction of bats by a disease known as white-nose syndrome may not yet rise to the level of extinction but it is most certainly a "bataclysm," even if one of which most people seem blissfully unaware.

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Bats may not be the most beloved of creatures, but vultures may get even less respect. And yet they are the essential sanitary crew that helps to keep our world clean. If they were not on the job, we would have a much less pleasant environment. But they face persecution in many parts of the world. This is especially true in Africa where some species have declined by as much as 98 percent in some locations.

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Little Penguins are, as you might expect from the name, the smallest of the various penguin species. They live in Southern Australia, New Zealand, and the Chatham Islands. They are very social animals and a new study of the birds shows that they forage together, search for food in groups, and apparently synchronize their movements in search of prey.

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The global sea level could rise as much as 37 centimeters in this century due to the discharge of ice from Antarctica caused by the warming of the climate.

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The non-avian dinosaurs, as well as many other less well-known or less charismatic species, died out in a global catastrophe some 66 million years ago. It's known to scientists as the fifth extinction and indeed it came close to extinguishing life on Earth. But the deeply wounded planet rebounded. To understand just why and how we need to understand the plants that survived. The Cenozoic garden - basis of the resurrection of life on the "Big Blue Marble."

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The New Jersey Institute of Technology had planned to test drones at Cape May this summer, but that has been blocked by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which feared the tests might endanger Piping Plovers and Red Knots, both of which are threatened species. The tests will be allowed to proceed in November once the birds have migrated. 

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Good news about Grey-breasted Parakeets. A hitherto unknown population of the critically endangered bird has been discovered in Brazil.

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Scientists are worried about the effects of the severe drought in California on the millions of migrating birds that pass through the state. It is unclear if there will be enough food and water to accommodate the fall migration this year.

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Some of the giant sequoias of the Sierra Mountains have lived on Earth for 2,000 to 3,000 years, but will they be able to adapt to a warming planet? Scientists are looking for ways to help the trees survive.

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"Shark Week!" The headlines and the television commercials scream it at us every year at this time. What is this fascination that the creatures seem to hold for many humans? Unfortunately, that fascination has not been enough to protect these top predators of the seas. The populations of many of the species have been declining for years. But now there seems to have been a bit of a turnaround. The state of sharks, 40 years after Jaws, shows signs of improving. Maybe we won't need a bigger boat after all!



One of my all-time favorite movie scenes. And now I've had an excuse to play it again!

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