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Sometimes three nights spent in the woods are more restorative and satisfying than even I expect them to be.

And that is exactly the experience I had camping at the Silver Fork Campground on the banks of the Silver Fork of the American River in the El Dorado National Forest. I have camped in this area before, but never at this specific campground, and it was lovely. The campground was quiet and clean. The river was close and beautiful. The forest was impressive. And the birds were thrilling!

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And the river itself was wonderful as well. The water was the perfect temperature for wading and swimming which was so refreshing in the heat of the afternoon. Not only were there dippers and the merganser to watch, but there were lots of different butterfly species coming down to drink and get some salts from the sandy shore, and also a huge variety of macroinvertebrates in the water. There were so many stonefly larva crawling around on the bottom with their carefully constructed tiny hard tubes made from tiny sticks and stones.

With the beauty of the forests, the amazing wildlife to see, cooking over the fire, and sharing the whole experience with family and friends, this was a wonderful trip. I was aware that I really missed camping in 2020, but in a lot of ways I am fully realizing just how much I missed it now that I am camping once again! Being in the woods, getting to see and smell and hear the natural world around me, and getting to share it with you both here and on my YouTube channel (there will be a couple of videos coming out in the next few weeks) made me happier and more tranquil and excited than I have been for a while! I can’t wait until my next trip!

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List of Bird Species Observed:

Common Merganser

Common Nighthawk

Anna’s Hummingbird

Turkey Vulture

Belted Kingfisher

White-headed Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

Northern Flicker

Pacific-slope Flycatcher

Black Phoebe

Steller’s Jay

Common Raven

Mountain Chickadee

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Red-breasted Nutchatch

Brown Creeper

American Dipper

Townsend’s Solitaire

American Robin

American Goldfinch

Dark-eyed Junco

Spotted Towhee

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Hermit Warbler

Wilson’s Warbler

Western Tanager

List of Other Species Observed (incomplete):

Western Tiger Swallowtail

Pale Tiger Swallowtail

Blue Copper

Lorquin’s Admeral

Sierra Nevada Checkerspot

Stonefly

Cadis Fly

Yellowjacket

Pacific Clubtail

Kibramoa madrona

Western Fence Lizard

Rainbow Trout

Douglas’s Squirrel

California Groundsquirrel

I spent last weekend in the wonderful little town of Bolinas, CA. This special spot on the California Coast a relatively short drive north of San Francisco is a quite and quirky and very laid back. It is also right on the shore of the Pacific Ocean and Bolinas Lagoon and as such it provides access to a bunch of coastal and aquatic habitats, and I took advantage of this positioning to do a lot of birding!

Wildlife photographer captures osprey carrying shark, carrying fish in  'one-in-a-trillion photograph' | Fox News
Osprey carrying a fish. Photo Credit: Fox News

One morning, I went out to the beach to see what coastal and ocean birds I might spot and to do a bit of beach combing while I was at it. The sky was gray over the ocean, but not foggy. The tide was low and it was fun to spend a little time looking at washed up kelp, finding Sand Crabs as the waves broke on the shore, and looking out to sea at the rolling ocean. I was also enjoying watching the Western Grebes and Clark’s Grebes fishing off shore, the Double-crested Cormorants flying back and forth, and the Brown Pelicans cruising above the waves when I heard a bit of a commotion overhead. I looked up to see three birds chasing each other around in a mid-air tangle. One bird was an Osprey with a fish in its talons. The second bird was an adult Western Gull trying to steal that fish. The third bird was an adult Bald Eagle also trying to rob the Osprey! All three birds were engaged in some fancy flying over the waves as they attempted to secure their breakfast as the sun rose above the tree topped hills.

Sound Library - Bald Eagle - Yellowstone National Park (U.S. National Park  Service)
Adult Bald Eagle. Photo Credit: National Park Service

The tangle of birds did not last long. The Osprey was ultimately successful at defending its catch from the two would-be thieves and flew off to enjoy its meal. The gull quickly disappeared to forage elsewhere, but the eagle stuck around for a little while. It circled out over the Pacific for a couple of minutes, and watching for so long was a real treat for me. It then turned toward shore, dropped altitude, and flew along the beach. As it spread its huge wings about 50 feet over the sand, it flew slowly over beach goers and surfers. None of whom noticed at all! The humans were all absorbed in their own activities and did not realize that an enormous, not to mention iconic, bird was cursing right over their heads. I suppose that I should not have been surprised by this lack notice, and to a certain extent I wasn’t, but it was definitely amusing.

The Bald Eagle continued flying smoothly down the beach until it followed the bending line of the sand around a bluff and out of sight, and I continued my morning of beach exploration. It was a lovely morning that I enjoyed very much, and I hope you get out for some time on the coast as well.

Thanks for visiting my blog. If you are interested in other ways to connect with me, here are a couple of options:

Become a follower of this blog!

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I have been thinking and writing about changing the names of birds for a little while now. Particularly, I am talking about the birds that have been named after people. In fact, an article I wrote on this subject set off a series of interactions between me and a publisher that led me to withdraw my support and contributions to several magazines that I had been writing for for years. If you want to read about that story, it starts here.

I think that the names of birds that have been named after people should be changed for a few reasons. One is that these names ignore the names used by indigenous peoples for these birds. Another is that the people for whom birds are named represent very little diversity. And an additional reason is that the people who have had birds named after them include some distinctly shady characters (racists, frauds, etc.). Allow to elaborate.

Bachman's Sparrow Songs and Calls - Larkwire
Adult Bachman’s Sparrow

One reason why the current bird names are a problem is that the idea of a (generally) European individual coming across a bird, figuring it is a new species to the scientific world, and naming it according to that European’s preference ignores the indigenous recognition of that species. Indigenous peoples have recognized, and named, the birds around them for thousands of years, but these names have been largely ignored when establishing modern bird names. In the scientific community, there are general rules for naming species and one of those rules is that the name first applied to a species is the one that gets used. What this means is that if one person in England and one person in Germany (as representative examples) both separately identify and name the same species, the name that is officially adopted is the one used by whoever named it first. So using this standard, names applied earlier by indigenous peoples around the world should have priority over names applied later by European explorers. The fact that they have not been is a product of the very Eurocentric nature of the science and age of exploration in the 1700s and 1800s, and it should be changed. All peoples from around the world should be represented and included in the choosing of species names. No one group should have control of this process.

Another reason why current bird names are a problem is that most of the people who birds have been named after, and that are recognized today, have been straight white men. This is largely a product of the fact that most of the people doing the naming of birds that are recognized today have also been straight white men. If you look in a bird book today, you will see few-to-no birds named after women, few-to-no birds named after people of color, and few-to-no birds named after members of the LGBTQIA+ community. This is racist and sexist and should be changed. If people are going to be recognized with the honor of having a bird bear their name, there is no reason why those people should all come from a small and narrow subset of humanity. There have been many women, many people of color, and many members of the LGBTQIA+ community who have contributed to to our understanding of birds and who could be honored by naming a bird after them.

Featured Birds: Baltimore and Bullock's Orioles
A male Bullock’s Oriole.

A third reason why current bird names are a problem is that some of the people whom birds have been named after don’t really deserve the honor. Some people were slave owners such as John Bachman (Bachman’s Sparrow) who also wrote of the inherent inferiority of black people. Some people were dramatically unpatriotic such as John Porter McCowan (McCowan’s Longspur) who was a confederate general who fought to destroy the United States of America. Some people desecrated the sacred sites of indigenous peoples such as John Kirk Townsend (Townsend’s Warbler and Townsend’s Solitaire) who dug up the graves of Native American men, women, and children and sent their heads to various collectors and pseudoscientists. And some people were con artists such as William Bullock (Bullock’s Oriole) who owned and curated a natural history museum that included specimens intentionally faked to attract publicity. These are people whom I do not think are worthy of being honored by having a bird named after them, but because they had money, friends, and connections we now frequently speak their names (I watched a lovely Bullock’s Oriole just a couple of days ago).

Some things are starting to change. For example, the name of the McCowan’s Longspur has been changed to the Thick-billed Longspur in light if the racist and unpatriotic actions of the confederate general. But far more needs to change in order to make the culture and community of birding as open and inclusive as it should be. A current movement is forming with the idea of changing the name of all birds that are named after people to names that are more descriptive of their natural history. This idea points out that the name Bendire’s Thrasher does not provide any useful information about the bird itself; however, Blue Grosbeak does provide some useful information (namely, that it is blue). Changing the names of all birds that are currently named after people also side-steps the problem of deciding who is and who is not worthy of having a bird named after them. Society’s morals are constantly changing, and so attempting to reinterpret past figures according to modern standards is, and will continue to be, difficult. Instead, we can make the names far more lasting and useful if we simply change the currently used names, and end the practice of naming species after people.

Thanks for visiting my blog. If you are interested in other ways to connect with me, here are a couple of options:

Become a follower of this blog!

View and subscribe to my YouTube channel – A Birding Naturalist

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I recently learned about a scholarship intended to increase diversity in the birding community. It is called the Black and Latinx Birders Scholarship, and it is run by an organization called Amplify the Future. This scholarship was founded in 2020 and seeks to amplify the successes of Black Birders and Latinx Birders by raising funds for annual scholarships and creating networks of support. This year, the American Bird Conservancy is partnering with Amplify the Future to match all donations to this scholarship up to $10,000!

Amplify The Future | LinkedIn

The website provides this information about the scholarship: “Through the Black and Latinx Birders Scholarship, we the committee seek to increase the number of Black Birders and Latinx Birders studying in STEM. Scholarship awards range from a minimum of $2,500 to a maximum of $5,000, depending on funding for the current year. The application period for the 2021-2022 school year will open February 2021. The deadline for application submissions is June 18, 2021.”

The website also has more information on eligibility, how to apply, etc.

So, go check out this great opportunity, pass it along to others who might be interested, and help support diversity in the birding community!

Thanks for visiting my blog. If you are interested in other ways to connect with me, here are a couple of options:

Become a follower of this blog!

View and subscribe to my YouTube channel – A Birding Naturalist

Follow me on Instagram – abirdingnaturalist

I filmed a video for my YouTube channel a couple of days ago on Peregrine Falcons (the link to my channel is below), how they are thriving and nesting on tall buildings, and how various people/groups have set up live-streaming cameras so that all of us can check in on the nests and see what is going on.

One of the major events that have allowed Peregrine Falcons to thrive was the banning of insecticides in the 1970s, and one big one was the banning of DDT in 1972. Once the chemical was banned in the USA, several groups of dedicated people including scientists and falconers worked incredibly hard to help bring the Peregrine Falcon population back up to a healthy level.

Well, the DDT story is not over. While active use of DDT no longer occurs in the USA, there is still DDT in this country. DDT can persist in the environment for a very long time, and so it can still be found in water and soil. Some of this contamination is from runoff from when DDT was used to control insects. But some of this contamination is coming from sites where chemicals such as DDT were intentionally dumped.

A discarded, leaking barrel sits 3,000 feet underwater near Catalina.
A partly corroded barrel sitting approximately 3,000 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean near Santa Catalina Island (Photo Credit: The LA Times).

One such dump site may have been found off the coast of southern California. As reported in the LA Times, researchers have found more than 25,000 barrels of chemicals sitting about 3,000 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean near Santa Catalina Island! This likely represents a dumpsite that was used for years to dispose of unwanted chemicals, and the full extent of site was not determined because the barrels extended beyond the edges of the survey area! These barrels are suspected of holding DDT and other chemicals. DDT has been detected in the waters around southern California, it has been found to accumulate in the tissues of dolphins, and has been linked to aggressive forms of cancer in California Sea Lions.

Cleaning these barrels up is going to be a major undertaking. Leaving them in place is not an option because of the lasting health impacts of that much DDT poses a serious threat to a wide range of species (including humans) over a wide geographic area. The barrels themselves are corroded and breaking them apart as they are lifted will be a real danger.

Dealing with sites like this are a stark reminder that we humans have made tremendous mistakes. Many of these mistakes have been in how we have dealt with the natural environment. These mistakes, like dumping barrels of chemicals in the ocean, have left a legacy that we are dealing with today. We must be ready to admit the mistakes of the past. We must be ready to take actions to fix those mistakes. We must be ready to commit the needed money to make these actions a reality. If we are able to do these things, we can experience more recoveries like that of the Peregrine Falcon where it went from almost extinct to almost common, and we will better preserve the vital biodiversity of this planet.

Thanks for visiting my blog. If you are interested in other ways to connect with me, here are a couple of options:

Become a follower of this blog!

View and subscribe to my YouTube channel – A Birding Naturalist

Follow me on Instagram – abirdingnaturalist

Earth Day 2021

Today is Earth Day!

A Look at the Earth from Space: NASA Raises Awareness about the SDGs
Image Credit: NASA

This year, I have been finding myself reading and listening to some voices I greatly value. Some are voices that I have listened to for decades and others are voices that are newer to me, but each offers deep wisdom about our earth, our universe, and the roles each of us do and might play. They offer some “cosmic perspective” to quote Neil deGrasse Tyson, and remind us that “a land ethic changes the role of Home sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it” to quote Aldo Leopold. This earth is the only home we, as a species, have ever known, and Earth Day is a fitting time to reflect on the implications of that fact.

Below are links to two videos that move and inspire me, and I hope they do the same for you. Happy Earth Day.

Earthrise by Amanda Gorman

Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan

This post is a little late, but this blog turned nine years old earlier this month (7-April-2021)!

Over the nine years I have been creating for this blog, I have written a total of 276 posts. These posts have been collectively viewed a total of 73,181 times by 57,204 visitors who came from 167 countries all around the world, and 84 of which decided to become followers of the blog! I am so grateful that each of you decided to spend some of your time with me here on this blog, and I hope you continue to find the information you find here valuable.

This year also included the launch of whole new branches for A Birding Naturalist into different forms of social media in the form of a YouTube channel called A Birding Naturalist and an Instagram account called abirdingnaturalist! I hope you explore both of these new platforms and subscribe and follow me there. Your support is tremendously appreciated.

This new year of A Birding Naturalist is going to be an exciting one. My commitment to sharing the knowledge of the natural world is a strong as even, and I hope you continue to join me on this journey!

Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) are a species that is growing more and more numerous, and this is a problem.

Mute Swans are the “classic” swan from stories and art. They are large and showy and beautiful and these traits are exactly why they have been introduced to North America. Birds were brought from Europe in the 1800s and released in parks, gardens, etc. as ornamental additions (New York was the original release area). These birds have since reproduced and spread across the continent as far north as New Hampshire, as far south as Florida, and as far as west as California.

Adult male Mute Swan (Cygnus olor). Source: USFWS digital library.

They are becoming problematic for several reasons. One is that they are quite aggressive, and will chase and bite humans if that human trespasses on the swan’s territory. Another is that they consume quite a bit of food. They are big birds reaching up to 25 to 30 pounds, and that means they eat about eight pounds of aquatic vegetation every day. That is food which is then not available to native birds, and it disrupts habitat for native birds, mammals, fish, and other species. And a third reason is that the swans are directly aggressive to other species of bird driving them off nests, breaking eggs, and killing the chicks of other species, and so displacing those other species from areas where they would otherwise live. With habitats becoming ever smaller and more fragmented, this can mean the native species can be left with no where to go.

These problems have all contributed to Mute Swans being added to California’s restricted species list in 2008. This listing means the birds cannot be imported, transported, or possessed in the state without a permit. This has not completely prevented the swans from beginning to become established in California. Small populations can be found in Petaluma and the Suisun Marsh. I suggest that removing this species while the population is still small is the best course of action. There is every reason to suspect that the population will grow, and as it does so, the problems listed above will become more and more apparent. However, control will become more and more difficult.

One interesting thing about Mute Swans in North America is that they do not migrate very much. There are certainly some, relatively short, seasonal movements that occur in some parts of the continent, but not much. Certainly nothing compared to the long migrations that Mute Swans in Europe engage in. The evolution of this behavior in a novel environment illustrates how different geographic regions can cause a species to adapt and change. This behavioral evolution could then lead to the evolution of a new species, if it persists and becomes dramatic enough.

So, what can you do to help native birds and habitats, and prevent Mute Swans from taking over? If you spot a Mute Swan in California, contact the California Department of Fish and Wildlife – Invasive Species Program by sending an email to: invasives@wildlife.ca.gov or calling 886-440-9530. Together, we can act as citizen scientists to gather data that tracks where these birds are and how they move around. This data will help us all make the best and most informed decisions we can about this species.

Thanks for visiting my blog. If you are interested in other ways to connect with me, here are a couple of options:

YouTube – A Birding Naturalist

Instagram – abirdingnaturalist

I read something a couple of days ago that troubled and saddened me in so many ways. It was a personal account by a young woman of how she was sexually assaulted. Various search engines and social media platforms brought this article to my attention because it involved birders. In her blog post, Aisha White told of how she began exploring the world of birding in 2020. Among the many people she met included a prominent figure in the birding community where she lived. This person is a science communicator, he leads birding tours, has a large online platform, and he hosts a successful documentary series on birding with a large following.

He raped Aisha.

You can read the full story in Aisha White’s own words, here.

Now, the person who did this terrible thing to Aisha White is black and I am white. And, I realize that as a white person, I may be accused of racism when I denounce a black person. I hope that does not happen. But I am also a man, and as such have a responsibility to hold other men accountable for their actions.

So, let me be very clear. Sexual violence is intolerable and has no place in the birding community.

Additionally, I am a science communicator, and play a small role in the birding community as well (though no where near what the man in question has held). As a birder and science communicator, I want to bring more people into the birding community. I want to share knowledge of the fascinating world we live in with them. I want to inspire people to want to learn more! The actions of this man taint such efforts by the all the rest of us.

The various organizations that had worked with this man have canceled those associations. He was fired from the American Bird Conservancy, where he worked, and the documentary series has been canceled. Legal investigations will move forward to determine the facts of the case, and what paths forward could be taken. But, I think dissolving the associations with the man in question were appropriate actions for those organizations to take.

I think that stepping forward and sharing an experience like this with the public takes a lot of guts. Aisha White, if you ever read this, I see you, I hear you, and I am sorry that this ever happened to you. I hope that you find a way to continue exploring the world of birds and that your love for them continues to grow. Know that there are many people in the world who will stand by you and will be happy to help, if you like. I am one of them.

A GoFundMe page to support Aisha White’s legal costs can be found here.

This is a developing story and may be edited and adjusted as more information becomes available.

A few years ago, I wrote a post called Lizards, Ticks, and Lyme. It explained how Western Fence Lizards (Sceloporus occidentalis) have a blood protein that kills the bacteria that causes Lyme Disease, and this is one of the major explanations of why Lyme Disease is so much less common in the Western USA.

Well, new research (see references at the end) has added a really intriguing facet to the Tick-Lizard-Lyme story. This new research focuses on the southeastern USA. The southeast is another area where Lyme Disease rates are very low. But why? The southeastern USA has populations of Black-legged Ticks (members of the genus: Ixodes), which are the ticks that can carry Lyme Disease. The region has the mammal species such as deer and mice that act as reservoirs for Lyme Disease. People in the southwest get bitten by ticks, just like other parts of the country. So why is Lye Disease so much more common in the northeastern USA than the southeastern?

Well, once again, it looks like we can thank lizards. Skinks are a group of smooth-scaled rather lovely looking lizards and they are one of the preferred hosts for ticks in the southeastern USA. In the northeastern USA mice are the much more common host to ticks. And this sets up a roadblock for Lyme Disease in the southeast because skinks have been shown to be really bad transmitters of Lyme Disease. Mice, on the other hand, have been shown to be very effective transmitters of Lyme Disease.

A Southeastern Five-lined Skink (Photo credit: Animal Spot)

It is not yet known if the stinks blood contains proteins that actually kill the Lyme Disease-causing bacteria, or it there is something else about skinks that reduces transmission rates, but this difference in host does help to explain why Lyme Disease rates are so much lower in the southeastern USA as compared to the northeastern USA.

So, fence lizards and skinks both contribute to reducing Lyme Disease in the areas where these lizards are found. Pretty fascinating stuff! I am very much looking forward to learning more about this subject as more research is done. Do other lizard species also reduce the occurrences of Lyme Disease? Does skink blood kill the bacteria that causes Lyme Disease? What is the blood protein that the fence lizards produce that kills the bacteria, and can it be synthesized? So many questions!

I hope you follow this story, and are as intrigued by it as I am. I will certainly write more as more is discovered.

Here are some sources for further reading: a Science News article, and an SF Gate article.