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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Birdchaser in Birder's World Magazine

Check out my latest book reviews in the brand spanking newly designed and even cooler Birder's World magazine. Pretty sweet cover of a Northern Hawk Owl, eh?

While I wouldn't go so far as to call Birder's World the Playboy of bird magazines, the new look is pretty sexy.

Birdchaser caught on film

Earlier this month on my trip to the Tuxtlas in Mexico, I was caught on film by 101 Ways to Help Birds author and birderblogger Laura Erickson. While most of the birders in the four vans were busy looking at a Red-billed Pigeon, I was hobnobbing with Purple Martin Conservation Association founder Jamie Hill. That's us over there on the right side of the building. Not a great photo? Can't tell its me?

OK, here I am at lunchtime, obviously having too good of a time on my Columbus Day vacation jaunt through Veracruz. Actually, I wish I could remember what I was chuckling about. Must have been good though, because normally I just have a twinkle in my eye, rather than a full blown belly laugh thing going on. But oh, its so great to be out birding!

Say hello to my leetle friend

OK, he isn't exactly little. And if he were still alive, he probably wouldn't be my friend. He's a 10 foot tall bird with a horse-sized head sporting a giant eagle beak. He could gulp down giant possums in a single gulp. He's a 15 million year old species of phorusrhacid--large flightless birds that roamed the Americas after the dinosaurs were wiped out at the end of the Cretaceous. See here for more details of the discovery of the skull and foot bones of this bird in Argentina.

Birdchaser in I and the Bird blog carnival

Check out the latest I and the Bird for the best recent bird and birding blog posts.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Audubon Backyard Birds FAQ

Audubon has just posted a new backyard bird FAQ page. Perhaps a good resource for a bird club or anyone else who gets frequent emails about the following:
--Why does a male cardinal continuously bang against the windows of our house?
--What kind of hawk is this in my backyard? Should I stop feeding the birds?
--Can you recommend a squirrel-proof feeder?
--When is the best time to hang a nesting box? How big should it be?
--I found a baby bird out of its nest and hopping around our backyard. What should I do?
-- An ugly, bald bird just showed up at my feeder. It resembles a cardinal but it has a blue head. What is it?
--There is a white bird in my yard. Is it an albino or some kind of rare species?
--I live in Massachusetts and saw a small black and white woodpecker in my backyard. Could it be a baby Ivory-billed Woodpecker?

The answers to these questions are online here.

33,850 birds tested in USA for H5N1 bird flu

Based on the latest numbers posted by the National HPAI Early Detection System (HEDDS), researchers have tested over thirty thousand wild birds in the US for dangerous H5N1 avian influenza viruses. So far, no signs that HPAI H5N1 has crossed over to the US with migrating birds from Asia or Europe. You can see a breakdown of how many birds have been tested in each state here.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

UGA study identifies North American wild bird species that could transmit bird flu

The following news release comes from the University of Georgia provides interesting information on how various North American species respond to HPAI H5N1.

Athens, Ga. – University of Georgia researchers have found that the common wood duck and laughing gull are very susceptible to highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza viruses and have the potential to transmit them.

Their finding, published in the November issue of the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, demonstrates that different species of North American birds would respond very differently if infected with these viruses. David Stallknecht, associate professor in the department of population health at the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine and co-author of the study, said knowing which species are likely to be affected by highly pathogenic H5N1 viruses is a vital component of efforts to quickly detect the disease should it arrive in North America.

“If you’re looking for highly pathogenic H5N1 in wild birds, it would really pay to investigate any wood duck deaths because they seem to be highly susceptible, as are laughing gulls,” said Stallknecht, a member of the UGA Biomedical and Health Sciences Institute. “It was also very interesting that in some species that you normally think of as influenza reservoirs – the mallard, for instance – the duration and extent of viral shedding is relatively low. This may be good news since it suggests that highly pathogenic H5N1 may have a difficult time surviving in North American wild birds even if it did arrive here.”

Working under controlled conditions in an airtight biosecurity lab at the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory, the researchers determined how much of the virus was shed in the feces and through the respiratory system of several species of wild birds. The work was jointly funded by the United States Poultry and Egg Association, the Morris Animal Foundation and the USDA.

“We chose birds that, because of their behavior or habitat utilization, are most likely to transmit the virus or bring the virus here to North America,” said lead author and doctoral student Dr. Justin Brown.

The species studied were: Mallards, which are often infected with commonly circulating, low-pathogenic avian influenza viruses in North America and Eurasia; Northern pintails and blue-winged teal, which migrate long distances between continents; redheads, a diving species; and wood ducks, which breed in Northern and Southern areas of the United States. The laughing gull is a common coastal species ranging from the Southern Atlantic to the Gulf Coast.

Stallknecht explained that in low-pathogenic avian influenza, most of the virus is shed in the feces of birds. The virus then spreads as other birds drink from contaminated water. The study found that in highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza, however, the birds shed most of the virus through their respiratory tract.

Stallknecht said that with this knowledge, scientists can detect the virus in live birds more effectively by swabbing the birds’ mouths and throats.

“Doing avian influenza surveillance is pretty tricky because there are a lot of species differences and there are also seasonal differences,” he said. “So you’ve got to pick the right species at the right time and you’ve got to collect the right samples.”

In a related study scheduled to be published in the December issue of the journal Avian Diseases, the researchers have quantified how long the virus persists in water samples. They found that highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza viruses don’t persist as long as common low-pathogenicity strains. In some cases, persistence times were reduced by more than 70%. This could affect transmission and supports the idea that these viruses may not have much of a chance of becoming established in North America.

Stallknecht said the finding is encouraging, but cautions that it’s difficult to put it into context without results from a study his team is currently working on that will assess the minimum amount of virus it takes to infect a bird.

This month, the researchers also received the first $875,000 of a planned three-year grant totaling $2.6 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The grant will be used for an ambitious project that will take a broad look at the possibility of human contact with avian influenza viruses.

In the first phase of the project, the researchers will examine the prevalence, persistence and distribution of the viruses in various environments. In the next phase, they’ll work with state public health departments to determine the groups of people who – by virtue of their occupation or recreational activities – are likely to come into contact with the viruses. The researchers then will assess the ability of low-pathogenic avian influenza viruses to infect mammals so that the risk of human contact can be put into perspective.

“With this information, public health officials will be able to better understand the human health risks associated with both low-pathogenic and highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses in both domestic and wild bird populations,” Stallknecht said. “Many of these potential risks are not very well understood or even defined, and it is possible that they could be very effectively controlled with simple preventive measures.”

Monday, October 23, 2006

More H5N1 bird flu in US

With increased testing of wild birds in the United States, we shouldn't be surprised to find more avian influenza viruses. However, so far all of the H5N1 viruses found have been low pathogenic forms that do not pose a risk to poultry or humans and are unrelated to the virulent asian H5N1 bird flu. The latest positive results of low pathogenic H5N1 come from Green-winged Teal in Michigan.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Report Sick or Dead Birds

Thanks to concerns about avian influenza, there is now a website telling you where to report sick or dead birds in each state. So, next time you find a dead bird, here's where to go.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Lark Sparrow, kaching!

During my lunch break today I joined Paul Green for a quick dash over to a local farm where a Lark Sparrow has been making an appearance. We quickly found the weedy draw where the bird is hanging out, but the bird didn't show itself right away. Did see three Palm Warblers and my first-of-season Ruby-crowned Kinglet, along with a half dozen other species. Finally, I found a big flock of sparrows, but they flushed down to the other end of the draw. Within a few minutes, a couple birders down there started waving us over...there it was, a juvenile Lark Sparrow with all the trimmings. This is the fifth county record, and the first to be photographed. A nice Western US bird for my Bucks County list.

Plastic Flamingos Faced with Extinction

According to this LA Times story, the factory that has produced 250,000 plastic pink flamingos a year for the last half century will close its doors next month. Don't know what more to say about this one. R.I.P.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Bank Swallows and Common Loons about to disappear

In case you haven't heard this yet, there is a proposal to get rid of the common names of some familiar North American birds, including Common Loon, Eared Grebe, Ring-necked Pheasant, Dovekie, Rock Pigeon, European Starling, Bank Swallow, White-winged Crossbill, and Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow.

In Frank Gill and Minturn Wright's new book Birds of the World: Recommended English Names, the names of these birds are replaced by Great Northern Loon, Black-necked Grebe, Common Pheasant, Little Auk, Common Pigeon, Common Starling, Sand Martin, Two-barred Crossbill, and Saltmarsh Sparrow.

So what are the chances that these names will be adopted by the American Ornithologists' Union Committee on Systematics and Nomenclature, the group that decides on the names of birds? Well, Frank Gill was the head of the International Ornithological Congress committee that worked through regional sub-groups to come up with all these names. The current AOU committe members that will have to vote on these recommendations are Richard C. Banks, Carla Cicero, Jonathan L. Dunn, Andrew W. Kratter, Irby J. Lovette, Pamela C. Rasmussen, J. V. Remsen, Jr., James D. Rising, and Douglas F. Stotz.

Keep your ears to the ground, but English bird name changes appear to be on the horizon. There are even more changes than those I listed here.

Other bloggers with thoughts on this include:
Birds Etcetra
Aimophila Adventures

Frank Gill on Ivory-billed Woodpecker "Rediscovery"

I was able to get a copy of Frank Gill's brand-spanking-new Ornithology text book (3rd edition). Here's what he says about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker:
Even more encouraging are the rediscoveries of species thought to be extinct (Table 21-1). Among them, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker has by far the highest profile. Last seen for sure in 1944 in the Singer tract of Louisiana, the majestic Ivory-billed Woodpecker, or Lord God Bird, is the signature species of the old-growth bottomland forests of the southeastern United States (Figure 21-7). One of the largest woodpeckers in the world, the Ivory-bill first was hunted by Native Americans and then was collected as a desireable rarity by early ornithologists. Critical bottomland forests were cut. Despite regular reports of sightings of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, in teh absence of any confirming photograph, Ivory-bills became as legendary and elusive as Elvis himself.

Then, a report by a kayaker in southeastern Arkansas on February 11, 2004, followed by 4 seconds of video, sparked fevered excitement, renewed hope, and led to a public media blitz in April 2005 (Fitzpatrck et al. 2005). Field teams searched the bottomlands. Additional land was secured to protect the ecosystem. Local entrepreneurs and townships profited from the rush of ecotourism. But the woodpecker disappeared, prompting professional debates and doubts (Sibley et al. 2006; Fitzpatrick et al. 2006; Jackson 2006). This spike of rediscovery, however, revitalized the hopes of conservationists everywhere. Other lost species also might survive if such a large and dramatic species as this one could persist undetected for 60 years (pp. 651-52).

Interestingly, there is a questionmark next to the rediscovery year in the table of rediscovered birds thought to be extinct for at least 50 years.

Friday, October 13, 2006

I saw an Ivorybill!

Maybe only 30 feet away, great looks as it hitched its way up a tree. Even saw the large whitish bill! It was an unmistakable Ivory-billed Woodcreeper in the Tuxtla Mountains of Veracruz. Perhaps the only real ivorybill species left on the planet?

I was able to attend the Auburn Ivory-billed Woodpecker talk at the North American Ornithological Conference in Veracruz last week. While I'd like more than anyone to know that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are out there somewhere, the Auburn team still doesn't have any confirmatory evidence that the birds are really there in their Florida study site. A couple brief sight records--with one or two that initially sound better than the Cornell sightings in Arkansas--that are by themselves not sufficient evidence. Some sound recordings of kent calls and double knocks--which could be explained by lots of other things like deer and other woodpeckers out in the swamps. Large holes in trees and trees with bark stripped off--who knows what else can do that to a tree.

While I wish the Auburn team luck, I was concerned that they:
A) Tried to pull off this search all by themselves, which means it was usually just one grad student sleeping in a tent in the woods for months at a time wandering around in the swamp. I guess they thought they had a slam dunk case and that it wouldn't be so hard to get a photo of the birds they thought they were hearing all the time.

B) At the NAOC talk Hill made it clear that they rejected the possibility of using tape playback to attract the birds. I just don't get that. While I can understand not wanting to disrupt the routine of what might be the most endangered bird in North America, if it still exists, what the world really needs is a good video of the birds so we can all agree that they are still out there. Tape playback is not THAT disruptive. Any serious birder knows that, and should know that it is the best way to get a good look at a bird. For what some are claiming is the most secretive bird in North America, if you really think you have one in your area, play the darn tape to make it come in so you can get video footage! Otherwise, you just won't have the evidence you'll need.

C) Some of the published sight records in this published study are just awfull. A big bird flying through the swamp? No color, no field marks, just size (which is impossible to judge accurately all the time) and shape (which can be subjective, especially when you have ambitions to get a sighting of a rare bird). Some of these "sightings" should have been rejected by the initial observer and not included in the paper. While I applaud the Auburn team for publishing "everything" they have, I have to question the judgement about some of what is included as "evidence".

D) While there was a question and answer session at NAOC after the talk, nobody really asked any hard questions of the Auburn team. Me included. Somebody asked why they hadn't climbed up to look into some of the large tree cavities for feathers (answer: it was scary to climb up there, and they're just starting to do that now). Others asked why the tone of the kent calls seems to vary so much in the different recordings (answer: we don't really know enough about the calls of these birds to answer that). Another asked why they think they couldn't get photos (answer: we didn't really search that big of an area, only maybe two square miles and we didn't have enough people on the ground to find the birds). The more these guys answered questions the more it seemed like they were really just not that prepared for their search. Maybe they thought it was going to be easier to find the birds than they first thought, since they thought they were hearing the birds almost as soon as they started looking. I heard their presentation described as Amateur Night at the Ivorybill Improv. While that may not be the most charitable way to describe it, it sure was easy to get the impression that the Auburn team hadn't really done what it takes to deliver the goods.

E) These guys had Ivory-bills on the brain. They weren't just out for a kayak trip down the river. They were motivated by a desire to find "their own" ivorybills the weekend right after the Cornell announcement. With a full belief that Cornell had proved that ivorybills were still "out there", maybe it was a bit too easy for them to convince themselves that the quick looks at birds and strange sounds in the swamp were indeed the birds they really wanted to see. While the Auburn team admits that they can't yet prove that the birds exist, I didn't see much sign of their being skeptical about the birds really being there. They really believe it. If they can eventually prove that the birds are there, then great. If not, we'll have to find another explanation. Some already believe that these guys just got caught up in an ivorybill hysteria and convinced themselves that they had the birds.

Without a photo, or better yet, a video, there's plenty of reasons to be skeptical about the continued existence of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and about the claims of those who think they've seen them. While there is plenty of room for hope and giving people the benefit of the doubt, we should still closely examine all the "evidence" on both sides. The birds are either out there, or they aren't. While it may be too early to determine that ivorybills are actually extinct (long overdue searches are ongoing), when you really look at the evidence, there's a lot of reasons to doubt that anyone has actually seen one of these birds in a long, long time.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Macaw Mountain Bird Park, Copan, Honduras

Last month when I was in Honduras, I was able to tour the incredible Macaw Mountain Bird Park in Copan. Macaw Mountain hosts dozens of Central American parrots in outdoor flight cages along a scenic creek valley in a tropical forest. The birds are mostly abandoned pets that are too acclimated to people to be released into the wild. It was great to see these birds, and to at the conclusion of the tour to interact with some of the birds as well. You can feed toucans and aracaris, as well as hold parrots and macaws. Its like a petting zoo for adults. Macaw Mountain does a valuable service in educating Hondurans about their local birds, and they provide a home for birds in need. If you are lucky enough to make it to Copan, swing by for a nice tour and enjoy the birds.

Mystery Birder

OK, kudos to whoever can be the first to identify this mystery birder and blogger who I met up with on my birding trip to the Tuxtlas. A field guide won't help you, but maybe surfing my blogroll will?

Birding the Tuxtlas

At 4:30am on Monday I joined these hardy souls for a two hour van ride from Veracruz to the Tuxtla Mountains for a day of birding.

With four vans of birders, it was a bit of a zoo, but most of us were able to see over 75 bird species, including such beauties as Keel-billed Toucan, Collared Aracari, Montezuma's Oropendola, and Red-fronted Amazon. We also heard Howler Monkeys. Very cool.

Some of us were lucky enough to see such goodies as Black Hawk Eagle and three out of range Black Swifts. The Tuxtla Mountains are an isolated low mountain range on the Gulf Coast just north of the Isthmus of Tehuantapec (where Mexico gets skinny in the middle), and they were pretty birdy. Lots of Olmec ruins in the area, including artifacts with some of the earliest ancient writing in the Americas. Birds, beautiful scenery, ancient just doesn't get much better than that.

Birds on the Beach

Laughing Gulls, Brown Pelicans, and Reddish Egrets are pretty common birds on the Gulf Coast. You could probably see them every day of the year. But what you might not see all the time, is large numbers of these birds running around right at your feet. On the beach outside my hotel in Veracruz, a large flock of these birds would gather every morning as the fishermen hauled in their gill net and sorted their fish. The gulls were everywhere, the pelicans were bobbing in the surf just a few feet offshore, and an egret ran between the fishermen working the net. Birds and humans, living together, sharing the beach, and making it work. Wish it were so easy to accomodate all bird species.
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