Archive for the ‘Seabirds’ Category

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Wisdom and her chick, Kukini.

Wisdom is a female Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) that has become pretty famous, and rightly so. As the species specific portion of her scientific name suggests, she is immutable, unchanging, indelible, persistent. Wisdom is the oldest known wild bird in the world! She is 68 years old!

And at 68 years of age, she is a mom once again! Her 31st chick, named Kukini, has just recently hatched on Midway atoll.

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Wisdom and her mate Akeakamai

Wisdom has returned again and again to the tinny island named Midway Atoll northwest of Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean. An extensive colony of Laysan Albatross nest on Midway, and Wisdom has joined that colony repeatedly over the years. She has had several mates over the course of those years, and her current partner in success is an albatross named Akeakamai.

Both Wisdom’s age, and her reproductive success are really incredible. Banded as an adult bird in the 1950s by the late great Chan Robbins who was a researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey, she has exceeded the lifespan of all other known wild birds. Birds do not age, physically, in the same way that humans do, so Wisdom looks just about exactly the same now as she did 50 years ago. And that she is still reproducing is a testament to how amazing of avian biology is. Another way birds and human age differently is that birds do not loose the ability to reproduce as they age. A human in their 60s is generally going to be past their reproductive age, however the reproductive abilities of albatross in their 60s seem to be unphased.

Albatross pairs only have one egg each year, and individuals often skip years and don’t breed at all. Once hatched, the young birds take longer and average for a bird to reach maturity and start breeding themselves. The low reproductive rates of all the albatross species means that each young bird is a significant contribution to the future of the species. Wisdom is definitely doing her part!

So, check in with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the agency that is monitoring the albatross populations on Midway Atoll, and see how the amazing Wisdom is doing this year!



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Adult Brown Booby

Scientists have been making predictions about the effects of climate change for the past couple of decades. One such prediction is that as the earth’s climate becomes warmer the geographic range of species will shift towards the poles and up-slope. This will occur because species will be moving to try to find areas that have the environmental conditions they have evolved to thrive in. So, a species that evolved in a temperate region such as California will be used to the temperatures found in California. As the earth warms, California will warm and the species that are adapted to life here will have move north to Oregon, Washington, or even farther north to find the temperatures they can tolerate.

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Adult Brown Boobies in flight.

Yet another example of these predictions coming true has been found on the Channel Islands of the southern California coast. Sutil Island is a small, rocky formation a little to the southwest of Santa Barbara Island and is part of the Channel Islands National Park. This year it has received a new visitor. About 100 Brown Boobies (Sula leucogaster) were observed by Channel Island biologists roosting on the island. Especially noteworthy was that among those 100 or birds were 4 nests! Brown Boobies are generally thought of as a tropical species, but they have been expanding their range north since the 1990s, and this is the first time they have nested on the Channel Islands. There is little doubt but that they will return next year, and likely in greater numbers.

This is what climate change looks like.

BRBO - Ventura County Star

A Brown Booby preening on Sutil Island.


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Information is important. With information each of us as individuals, and our society as a whole, can learn about the world. With information, we can all make decisions that make sense. With information, we can all discuss ideas.

Without information none of that is possible. Without information, we are, at best, at the mercy of our current, limited knowledge, and our base instincts. Without information we are, at worst, at the mercy of the limited knowledge and instincts of someone else.

This is why the gag order, and insistence that all reports and data be pre-screened before release to the public, issued by the President to the EPA are so concerning to me, and I think should be so concerning everyone else. This is exactly the kind of action that limits access to, and spread of, information. It will only hamper all of our abilities to operate as rational, critically thinking individuals. It is the kind of action that is put in place to control what we, as citizens, know and when we know it. This is censorship and it has no place in science or a free society.



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It has been 14 years since the first printing of the first edition of David Allen Sibley’s Sibley Guide to Birds. It was a wonderful book and stood out, at least in my mind, as the best guide to come out since Roger Tory Peterson’s guides to eastern and western birds. Now Sibley has produced his second edition, my copy just arrived in the mail yesterday. And this new edition has a lot of changes from he old one.

The first thing that struck me were the colors. This new edition has generally bolder, darker, richer colors than the first edition. This change may serve to highlight plumage characteristics and draw attention to color contrasts, and so may make the guide more user friendly. However, there is always a danger when attempting to improve on reality and the result will be distorting reality. Overall, I really like the richer colors, but I do think that on some of the birds, such as the California Towhee, it may have gone a bit too far.

A second major change is that the families of birds now appear in a very different order. Traditionally, bird guides have been formatted so that they present the groups of birds in an order that follows the evolutionary history of birds. In most guides this has meant that the first groups are the Loons then the Grebes then the Albatross and Petrels. However, with ever more detailed and accurate DNA sequencing abilities, the evolutionary history of birds has been going through several rounds of shake-ups, and Sibley’s second edition reflects the more current understanding of how birds have evolved. Now, the first groups shown are the Ducks and Geese followed by the Gallinacious birds and then the Loons, and the altered order of bird families continues throughout the rest of the book. I really like that the order of bird families has been changed. It means that we all have a better understanding of evolution. I am sure that some people will be annoyed at the new ordering, and may feel a bit disoriented when having to re-learn where to find a particular group of birds, but our knowledge is always changing, and the resources we use should reflect those changes.

A third big change is the addition of 111 rare species. These are species that are generally found on other continents, and that have been recorded a very small number of times in North America. At first, I thought that this would simply clutter up the guide with a bunch of birds that basically no one sees, and that they would distract from the birds that people are generally looking for when they open their bird books. But, on further reflection, I have actually really like having all these new birds. It gives us all a better understanding of, and exposure to, what birds are out there. I think that if we as birders, all have a more global understanding of our favorite taxa, that can lead to nothing but good.

One very minor bone to pick is something that was pointed out to me by the late, great Rich Stallcup. He noticed that the Wrentit had a somewhat worried expression and that this was not really representative of the fierce Wrentit spirit. In the new edition, the Wrentit still looks worried.

So, overall, I really like the new Sibley Guide to Birds a great deal and am looking forward to my next opportunity to use it. If I find a White-crested Elaenia I will now be able to identify it!

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My first memory of Rich Stallcup is actually not a bird memory at all, but rather a frog memory.  I was probably about ten years old when my mother, brother and I joined him on a bird walk.  But the very first thing he stopped to show the group were several Bullfrogs.  He got his scope on them and let us watch them breath.  He told us about how they were an invasive species and voracious predators that were eating the tadpoles and larva of other animals and so driving down their populations.  My second memory of Rich is a bird memory.  We went on a bird walk to Limantour Beach that Rich was leading that focused on gull identification.  I remember standing looking at a large flock of gulls and listening to him point out the subtle differences between different species, and the even more subtle differences between different aged birds of the same species.  I remember being amazed at the level of detail that he could notice and even more amazed by the concept that there was so much more detail out there to be noticed then I had ever realized before.

These memories, and so many more, point out what I feel were some of Rich’s greatest qualities.  He was a naturalist in the truest sense of the word.  He was the best birder I have ever known with an encyclopedic knowledge of birds, but he also knew tremendous amounts about mammals, reptiles, butterflies, and dragonflies.  He even kept a wildflower life list.  In an age of ever increasing specialization on smaller and smaller scales of knowledge, Rich went the other way and proved that a person does not have to choose between being a jack of all trades or a master of just one, but instead could master quite a few.  It is a lesson that I have tried to learn and an ideal that I continue to strive for.  And his attention to detail was incredible.  While standing watching a group of Bushtits work their way through a willow stand, he finally decided that he was not missing any other birds in the flock when he started recognizing individual Bushtits in the flock!

Of course, Rich’s professional accolades are many.  One of the prominent discoverers of the amazing natural history of Point Reyes and the fact that the outer point acts as a tremendous vagrant trap attracting unusual birds from across the continent when they are disoriented by a predator attack or a storm.  The outer point now also attracts birders from around the world.  Rich was also one of the founders of the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, an organization that is now one of the foremost international conservation NGOs.  He has written books, papers, and articles; and also led countless bird walks and pelagic birding trips, all with the aim of introducing people to nature.

I had the good fortune to be able to bird with Rich for many years.  When he and Ellen Blustein started the PRBO Youth Bird-a-thon Team in 1999, the four founding youth members were myself, my brother,and two of my best friends.  I have continued to participate in that event ever since.  Even after I got old enough that I could not count as a youth anymore, Rich seemed happy to have me stay on as a mentor to the incoming generations of youths.  When he learned that I was expecting my first child he told me that, as long as the kid was more than two days old, I should bring him or her on the Point Reyes Christmas Bird Count!  I was very happy that he was able to meet my wife a couple of times, and saddened that my child will never get the chance.

Rich Stallcup died on the 15th of December, 2012 of Leukemia.  His loved ones were at this side.  He was a naturalist who inspired me and many others with his knowledge, passion and generosity, and he will be greatly missed.

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Mt wife and I stopped along the edge of Bodega Bay, on the California Coast, this past weekend, to enjoy some clam chowder and watch some seabirds.  As we sat and ate, a number of California Brown Pelicans were standing or sleeping on a floating dock nearby.  The different colors and patterns on the heads of these birds can reveal a lot about their age and breeding condition.  About half of the birds we were watching had the solid brown head and neck, even brown body, and white belly of hatch year birds.  Since the Brown Pelican breeding season is generally from March to July, these are birds that just hatched within the last few months.  Other birds had white feathers on their faces withe some brown speckling, and brown feathers down their necks.  These were the adult birds in their non-breeding plumage.  They hatched in the summer of 2011 or earlier.  The two birds were could see the clearest probably were in fact 2011 birds because their tails had feathers that were grayer adult feathers, but also stall had some brown feathers mixed in that matched the tail feathers of the hatch year birds.  These retained feathers had not been replaced during the first cycles of molt (large birds often have several “generations” of feathers at one time.  This is thought to be because of how much energy and resources it takes to grown so many large feathers.).  As the year progresses, the face of these adult Brown Pelicans will change just prior to the beginning of the breeding season to be a pale yellow color on the head and still have the dark brown neck.  After the breeding season their appearance will change again to the familiar pale yellow head and white neck.  The next plumage in the cycle is the brown neck with the white head and speckles that we saw in Bodega Bay.  We along the central and northern California coast do not see the plumage just before the breeding season very often because Brown Pelicans along the Pacific coast have a strange migratory pattern.  Where most migratory birds go south in the winter to rest and north in the summer to breed, California Brown Pelicans go north in the winter to rest and fish along the California coast and go south in the summer to breed in the Gulf of Mexico.

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