Saturday, September 5, 2015

This week in birds - #172

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

Many of the backyard birds are looking downright scruffy these days. Are they sick? Is there some terrible epidemic sweeping through my bird population? No, they are just molting. It's a perfectly natural process when they slough off their old worn feathers and grow fresh, bright new ones to replace them. This Northern Mockingbird will be very glad when the whole thing is over. 

This Carolina Wren looks really pitiful, doesn't he? But he's just as perky as ever and soon his feathers will match his personality.

This Northern Cardinal is a little further along in the process.

In a few weeks, all of these backyard birds will be sleek and beautiful once again and well-insulated for the winter to come.

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President Obama made news with his trip to Alaska this week, one of the main points of which was to call attention to the dangers posed to that state from the effects of climate change. Of course, the news that much of the media focused on was his confirming the name change of the state's (and nation's) highest mountain from Mt. McKinley to Denali, which predictably made the heads of all those people with Obama Derangement Syndrome explode once again. That seemed to overshadow the news that the glaciers of Denali are melting really fast. A study this year showed that Alaska's glaciers are losing 75 billion tons of ice per year.

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In recent years, citizen science projects have made some remarkable contributions to knowledge about the environment and the plants and wildlife that are part of it. These projects garner thousands of enthusiastic participants, including myself. The Audubon Society has put up some maps featuring data visualization of the findings of some of the cumulative reports. They make the point that even Darwin was a citizen scientist, so we are in good company!

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The coal industry is collapsing, a victim of the better understanding of the harm that its mining does to the health of the workers and of the increased emphasis upon cleaner and more sustainable sources of energy. But the industry in its dying throes is continuing to do irreparable environmental harm in the communities of the Appalachian Mountains where coal was once king.

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More than 50% of 600 North American bird species that have been surveyed could lose more than half of their range to the effects of climate change by the end of this century, according to a study from the National Audubon Society that was published September 2. If this scenario plays out, those birds will either have to adapt or they will become extinct. 

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Among those who are interested in preserving Nature throughout the world, wildlife corridors are an idea whose time seems to have come. These corridors are being built in many places to help wildlife deal with urban development, giving them a way to safely cross highways or areas of human activity without having to come into contact with those deadly humans. Now, California is getting into the act in a big way - building a $30 million animal overpass over one of Los Angeles' busiest freeways. Harry Bosch would approve.

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Good news for Asian vultures. Last week, India banned the use of a drug that had been given to cattle, a drug that subsequently caused renal failure in vultures when they consumed the carcasses of animals treated with the drug. It's estimated that 49 million of the birds have died over the last twenty years because of being contaminated with the drug. 

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Kudzu is famous as the "vine that ate the South." Well, that may not quite be the case according to a naturalist writing in the current issue of Smithsonian Magazine. He tries to cut through the myths surround the notorious invasive plant.

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Plastics in the ocean have become so pervasive that scientists are warning that up to 99% of seabirds may be contaminated with the manmade products by 2050.

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The drought in the West has claimed our attention this year, but it turns out that drought may be returning to the East as well, with potentially devastating results. Already, water supplies in some New Jersey towns are being depleted.

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So, maybe it isn't that diet of royal jelly that transforms a regular bee into a queen bee; rather, it may be that pollen and honey are withheld from her and their absence is what triggers the transformation. At least that's the latest theory from scientists who study such things. 

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Common Loons are very faithful both to their nesting sites and their wintering grounds. Studies confirm that most of them return to the same area year after year to spend their winters.

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The Azuay stubfoot toad had been thought extinct since 2002 when it was last sighted, but it turns out that tales of its extinction were a bit premature. It has been independently rediscovered by three separate teams exploring in the mountains of Ecuador. 

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Some wind industry sites are making serious efforts to try to minimize the damage that their turbines do to wildlife by ramping down the turbine activity during migration season. This is important for birds but also for the migrating bats that are often victims of the blades.

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The last home range of the Attwater's Prairie Chicken is a few miles from my home, so I have a particular interest in the battle to save this severely endangered bird. From a low of 40 birds in 2002, the wild population now stands at 102, but progress is slow because of all the dangers faced by the birds, from fire ants to flood. That doesn't even take into account the toll that predators take each year. The Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge was established to provide some protection for the birds and, locally, the Houston Zoo is on board with the project to save them. The zoo incubates and hatches eggs each spring for chicks to be released into the refuge. Still, at this stage of the effort, scientists are not entirely confident that the species can be saved from extinction. 

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"Warblers and Rumors of Warblers" is featuring some pictures of fall migrants.

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Around the backyard:

And speaking of fall migrants, I recorded my first Rufous Hummingbird of the season, a female that arrived on September 2. She was joined shortly by a couple of others of that species and they all engaged in battle with the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, mostly adult males, that are still hanging around the garden before continuing their journey south.    





2 comments:

  1. Well, the birds that are molting cannot look uglier if they tried. The first time mine started molting I thought they were getting bored and were shedding feathers for lack of stimuli. I even brought them to the vet. :-)

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    Replies
    1. They do look extremely pitiful and sick when they are shedding their feathers. Fortunately, it doesn't last long and when it's over they look like entirely new birds.

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