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Archive for the ‘Waterfowl’ Category

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.

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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.

#thisisnotnormal

pansy-white-blue

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A couple of days ago, I awoke to a beautiful and foggy day in the central valley of California. Thick valley fog lay low, shrouding buildings and trees and blanketing the marshes and agricultural fields around Davis. As I was walking across campus on my way to teach Vertebrate Anatomy, I heard a sound above me that I do not hear on campus very often at all. It was the sound of geese flying high overhead. They came into view through the fog; a flock of about 200 Snow Geese wheeling and drifting through the fog. They wavered back and forth for a minute and then drifted out of my view back into the fog. A few minutes later, a smaller group flew past, and a bit after that, a flock of about 30 Northern Pintail flew by. All these waterfowl seemed to be a bit disoriented by the low, thick fog. They, presumably, were trying to find wetlands in which to settle for the day, but instead of spotting suitable habitat from high up and far away as they would on a clear day, they had to move around low and slow almost by feel trying to find a good place to rest. In their search, they took a wrong turn and ended up over the town and university of Davis which is not really the best waterfowl habitat. It was a fun treat for me to see and hear these birds, and I hope they figure out that heading a bit to the east and landing the Yolo Bypass is really a much better place to hang out. Good luck to them!

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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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A friend invited me to join him duck hunting this past weekend on the Sutter National Wildlife Refuge.  I have never hunted the Sutter Refuge, and was excited to explore some new ground.  Leaving West Sacramento at 2:30 am , I drove up to meet him.  In the darkness of early morning, long before dawn, we walked out into the marshes to find a place that would hopefully be very attractive to ducks.  We found a small island, scattered our duck decoys in the water around us, and nestled in to wait for dawn.  As the sky lightened, the birds started moving.  We had a few groups of ducks fly by, but the really impressive flocks were the White-faced Ibis!  Thousands of them flew over is that morning.  Big flock after bigger flock swept over us all heading to the south.  It was a very impressive show.  We also saw Ring-necked Duck, Northern Shoveler, Greater White-fronted Goose, Mallard, Bufflehead, Double-crested Cormorant, Belted Kingfisher, Black Phoebe, White-crowned Sparrow, Turkey Vulture, Savannah Sparrow, Lark Sparrow (my first of the fall), American Coot, Snow Goose, American Wigeon, Red-tailed Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk,  Northern Harrier, White-tailed Kite, Red-winged Blackbird, Marsh Wren, Great Horned Owl, Great Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, Great Egret, Tundra Swan, and Yellow-rumped Warbler.  By the end of the morning, my friend had shot a male Mallard, but that was the only bird of the day.  As I sat there, not shooting any birds, I was struck again by how many species benefit for these refuges.  While a large portion of their funding comes from the sale of hunting licenses and permits, hundreds of non-game species use the habitats that are preserved withing their boundaries.

The Sharp-shinned Hawk was an especially exciting encounter.  She (it was an adult female) was hunting the marshes as we were.  She was flying low to the ground or across the surface of the water, moving from stand of tule to brush covered island in the hope of startling some prey out of cover.  It was really amazing to watch how she used tall stands of plants as cover.  She would fly low towards one such stand and then, at the last possible moment, fly up and over it and drop down onto the other side.  One of the islands she decided to explore was the one we were sitting on.  She flew directly at me, and just saw me at the last second when she was only a few feet away.  She was rather surprised to see someone crouching in the plant cover, and flared up and over me to hunt elsewhere.  What great look!

On the walk out, I found a large growth of Oyster Mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) growing on a dead and fallen cottonwood tree.  I gathered some of them and brought them home, so at least I did not return completely empty handed.  These were the first mushrooms that I have collected this fall, and I am hoping that they signal that it is now wet enough to bring out many more.  The mushrooms ended up being part of dinner stir-fried with a little garlic, and also lunch the next day added to polenta (which was awesome).  Finding these mushrooms really drove home the point for me that it is not even just game bird species and non-game bird species that benefit from the National Wildlife Refuge system, but whole ecosystems filled with plant, animal, fungi, Bacteria and Archean species.  Thousands and thousands of them living their intricate lives so close to our own.

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With duck season about to start, I thought it would be a good time discuss duck stamps.  Duck stamps, officially called Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamps, are basically a federal permit allowing the holder to go hunting for ducks, geese, and a few other species.  They were authorized under the Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1929 to generate funds (a duck stamp costs $15 US) for the acquisition and preservation of wetlands and waterfowl habitat.  Since wetlands are among the most heavily impacted habitats with less than 10% of historic wetland area remaining today.

Hunters actually have to pay a fair bit to go into the marshes to hunt.  The cost of hunting licenses, access permits, state permits, and federal permits (like the duck stamp) all add up.  On top of those fees, every gun and box of ammunition have an extra tax added to their price.  This tax was established by the Pittman-Robertson Act in 1937.  The Pittman-Robertson Act is officially the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, and the revenue generated from this tax is earmarked for habitat rehabilitation and wildlife conservation.  In comparison, birders have to pay very little to enjoy the same wild areas.  Now, hunting has a much more direct impact on the ecosystem than birding, so it makes sense that it should have a higher cost.  But that having been said, birding is not without its own impacts.  The construction of auto tour routes, the air pollution from hundreds of vehicles each year, and the noise and habitat disturbance from the people themselves all impact the birds and their environment to a greater or lesser degree.  So, perhaps it makes sense that birders should pay a bit more too.  Imagine what could happen if there was a tax added to the price of binoculars and bird seed that went straight to the USF&WS or the EPA that could only be used to protect the environment.  Buying a duck stamp could be just such a step.

To buy a duck stamp, you don’t have to be a hunter.  Anyone can buy a stamp and in so doing contribute to the efforts of the USF&WS to protect our wild lands.  A few birders already buy a duck stamp every year.  If all the birders who go out and enjoy seeing flocks of 100,000 Snow Geese in the wetlands throughout the U.S. purchased a duck stamp, it would be a major boon to the funding of wildlife conservation in this country.

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This past weekend, as I was driving across the causeway that runs over the wetlands between Davis and Sacramento I saw that the ponds at the north end of the Yolo Bypass National Wildlife Refuge were flooded!  This is in preparation for the coming massive migration of waterfowl through the central valley of California that occurs each winter.

Managing land for waterfowl and other wetland bird species requires a lot of planning.  One of the most common strategies is something called Moist Soil Management.  In this technique, water levels are changed throughout the year to maximize the amount of plant grow that will benefit migrating birds.  Generally, this means that the water is slowly drained off in early spring.  The land is usually disked or plowed to aerate the soil to provide the best growing conditions.  The land is then left alone for the spring and summer to allow plants to seed and grow.  By altering exactly when the draw-down of water occurs, undesirable plant species can be discouraged in favor of plant species that produce food and cover for waterfowl.  These species include rice, millet, ragweed, and smartweed. Like many grasses and crop species, these plants can grow in very dense expanses.  To break up such areas, patches are frequently ploughed into the stands of plants to create a more heterogeneous habitat with dense areas of cover, edges or patches, and open spaces all mixed together.  Such habitats provide a great deal of high quality habitat for wetland birds.  Then, usually sometime between the first of September and the first of October, water is allowed to start to flow back in to flood the low-lying areas.  The flooding process is slow, and the whole area may not be flooded until as much as six weeks after the process began.  Most dabbling ducks feed by picking seeds and other food items off the bottom of a pond, so good ponds do not have to be deep, 18 inches or less, to attract birds.  Once the water has been brought back in, the area will remain flooded until the birds leave to head back north to their breeding grounds.  But even during the fall and winter, water levels are not static.  Changing how deep different areas are the impact of feeding waterfowl can be spread across all available land.

So, as you can see, managing land for migratory birds is a pretty involved process.  It is certainly a full time job, and research is continuously going on to figure out the best ways of creating the best possible habitats for the millions of birds that migrate to or through California each fall.  Seeing the water returning to the area is one of the more dramatic steps in the annual cycle of a managed freshwater wetland, but it is by no means the only step needed in the creation of high quality habitat.

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My  wife and I moved into our new place in West Sacramento a couple of weeks ago, and I have started exploring the nearby area to discover its birding potential.  Even though there is a fair bit of industrial development, and a lot of residential development, the birding is actually quite good.  This area has an extensive network of canals that help to manage water flow around the Port of Sacramento and in the Sacramento River.  These canals are all lined with Cattails and Tules which provide habitat for a number of species.  Associated with these canals are a number of bodies of open water.  These range in size from only about a quarter of and acre to large lakes like Lake Washington.  Many of these bodies of water are lined with willows, oaks, and cottonwood trees which create edges of riparian habitat.  Together the open water and riparian corridors attract even more species.  The list of species I have seen so far is at the bottom of this post.  I have not seen anything particularly unusual, but fall migration is still building up, so there are lots more birds on their way through.

Walking these canals and water edges has really impressed upon me how important even small areas of habitat can be.  These waterways provide stopover sites for lots of birds and they are pretty much in peoples back yards.  They take up pretty small amounts of space, yet yield a  very large benefit to wildlife.  I will certainly be spending a fair bit of time exploring these urban waterways and seeing what turns up.

Birds: Red-winged Blackbird, Marsh Wren, Common Yellowthroat, Wilson’s Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Long-billed Dowitcher, Black-necked Stilt, Canada Goose, Lesser Scaup, Mallard, Killdeer, Great Horned Owl, Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, American Kestrel, Western Scrub Jay, Anna’s Hummingbird, Bewick’s Wren, Lesser Goldfinch, House Finch, White-crowned Sparrow, Mourning Dove, American Coot, California Towhee, Spotted Towhee, Song Sparrow, American Crow, European Starling, Rock Pigeon, Black Phoebe, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Oak Titmouse, Green Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Great Blue Heron.

Mammals: Sacramento Cottontail, Raccoon, River Otter, Eastern Fox Squirrel.

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The day before yesterday, I was walking along the edge of Lake Washington, which is very close to our new home in West Sacramento, CA.  It was a great morning of birding with several of the early fall migrating Wilson’s Warblers, an adult Red-shouldered Hawk, a Lesser Scaup feeding on the lake and about 300 Long-billed Dowitchers resting on one muddy portion of shore.

As I walked around a bend in the cattails and tules, I saw a female American Kestrel swooping and diving back and forth at the top of an oak tree.  She was also screaming like crazy.  Nearby, perched on a bare branch of a sapling was a male American Kestrel.  He was calling like crazy as well!  As I stood there, I also heard several Western Scrub Jays also making a loud ruckus in the tree.  I was certainly curious to see what was causing all this fuss.  I walked closer, and as I did so, a Red-tailed Hawk flew past.  As it neared the tree it dipped low and dropped its legs down to strafe the tree top!  As I got even closer, two Anna’s Hummingbirds joined in to start darting in and out of the tree top at whatever was there.  What could cause this much commotion and attract this much ferocious attention from so many very different species?  I got my answer a few moments later when a Great Horned Owl launched itself out of the tree top and flew towards a different group of tree some distance away.  After the owl left, most of the birds seemed to calm down, expect for the American Kestrels which both followed the owl to its new perch site and continued to berate it there.

Not only was the commotion quite impressive, it was interesting how all these different species, with their very diverse natural histories, would all feel threatened by one owl!

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