Eye to eye with a black vulture

May 26, 2014

Great photo out of a group at the University of George studying carrion-eating birds.  They capture vultures — black vultures are a current project.

Close up of an eye of a black vulture.  Photo by Megan Winzeler, at a University of Georgia research project.

Close up of an eye of a black vulture. Photo by Megan Winzeler, at a University of Georgia research project. Note the photographer, reflected in the bird’s eye.

This bird has the unromantic name of BLVU202.

“The last thing the old prospector would see . . .”


Night heron in the Ding Darling NWR, by Errickson

May 22, 2014

Love this photo for many reasons.

U. S. Department of Interior on Twitter:  Amazing photo of a night heron in J.N.

U. S. Department of Interior on Twitter: Amazing photo of a night heron in J.N. “Ding” Darling NWR by intern Libby Errickson. @USFWSSoutheast #Florida pic.twitter.com/PA04nE4hhD

Let me count the ways I love it:

  • It’s a great photo, of a beautiful bird — a pose you won’t see often.
  • An intern took it.  Management of our great natural treasures, the Wildlife Refuges, the National Parks, the National Monuments, is flat enough that an intern can get great experience, and spend a lifetime — and score a great picture that the poobahs in Washington like and promote.  It’s a career photo; let’s hope Libby Errickson has (or had) a great internship, and this is just the first of many career photos or studies or whatever.
  • At a time when federal management of public lands is under fire, generally unjustifiably, simply for doing a good job but not having billionaires running their press operations, this is one more small example of something done right, for a long time.  The J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is one of the oldest in the U.S.  It was created by Executive Order from President Harry Truman in 1945, and is now one of more than 500 units of National Wildlife Refuges under the management of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other federal agencies.
  • Bonus:  Ding Darling was a political cartoonist, and a conservationist.  His pen, in pictures and words, convinced authorities to stop the sale and development of Sanibel Island in the Gulf of Mexico, preserving unique and valuable bird habitat.  This refuge celebrates one of our greatest political cartoonists.  It was renamed from Sanibel to Ding Darling NWR in 1967.  If you ask me, we don’t honor our political cartoonists enough.

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Video on the refuge, from the Ding Darling Society:


Annals of DDT: Rachel Carson was right, DDT hurts birds

April 6, 2014

Coming up on World Malaria Day 2014, and U.S. Congressional elections, we’ll start seeing repeated false attacks on Rachel Carson as the right’s most-favored representative of environmentalism, and those attacks will include calls to “end the ban” on DDT to roll back the “increase in malaria caused by the ban. ” Facts are that DDT was never banned in Asia nor Africa (not even under a 2001 anti-pollution treaty); Rachel Carson called for no ban on DDT, but instead urged use of “integrated pest management” (IPM)  to combat disease vectors, and IPM used broadly since 1999 has slashed malaria death totals and infections even more; and malaria deaths and infections started a downward trend in the 1960s that continues today, mostly without DDT.
This is one in an occasional series of posts to correct these hoax claims, with citations to information that readers may check for themselves. Much of this post appeared here earlier, in much longer form.

Rachel Carson was very careful in her 1962 book Silent Spring.  She offered more than 50 pages of citations to science papers and hard research to support what she wrote — a “don’t take my word for it, check it out for yourself” kind of honesty.

Still, today, there is an organized effort with broad success on the internet to smear Rachel Carson and hide the science she wrote about.  Standard from adherents to this insurgent anti-science movement include are claims that Carson’s book was wrong.  The title comes from a prologue of the book in which Carson described a spring in some future year, a spring which was unheralded by the songs and chatterings of birds.  Carson argued that, if humans do not stop to think about secondary effects of chemicals used, especially as pesticides, whole regions might be devoid of birds, dead from DDT poisoning.

Carson cited research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about just how deadly DDT could be to entire ecosystems.  She was particularly alarmed by research done at Midwestern universities, where DDT sprayed to save American elm trees from Dutch elm blight, quickly killed off most birds who came in contact with the stuff.  Dutch elm blight is spread by beetles, the targets of DDT in those sprayings.

In the 1950s, ornithologists, wildlife managers and bird watchers documented the pending demise of entire species of birds, especially raptors at the top of local food chains.  Audubon bird watchers throughout the eastern U.S. noted that migrations consisted of older birds only, with young and maturing birds appearing to have disappeared. Older birds mated, built nests, and laid eggs. Usually the eggs did not hatch, with chicks dying before the end of gestation.  In the few cases where young hatched, they generally died before they could migrate even one year.

Especially for the American bald eagle, this was a great disappointment. Eagles had been plentiful when European colonists migrated to North America, starting after Columbus’s voyages, 1492-1494.  By 1900, however, eagles had been hunted almost to extinction — well, they were extinct in some states.  Colonists, then farmers and ranchers, saw eagles as pests.  They ate fish the colonists wanted to catch for themselves.  Eagles would sometimes take a farmer’s chicken.  Cases of eagles taking larger prey are sparse to non-existent prior to the latter 20th century — but farmers claimed they did.  And so the birds were hunted mercilessly, simply to shoot them.

In 1911 the federal government tried to solve a many-states-wide problem, with a law protecting eagles from hunting.  It did little good.  In 1941 Congress passed a new law, with criminal penalties for people who poached eagles.  The decline of adult numbers slowed dramatically.  But that problem with hatching fledges stopped the recovery, at least so far as young birds who could replace those who died of old age or accidents.

Carson’s critics argue that eagles were never really in decline.  Steven Milloy and Gordon Edwards invented a fantastic tale that the Audubon Society annual Christmas Bird Count actually recorded an increase in eagle numbers, a false claim that Audubon certainly never made, based on a twisted misapplication of bird count methods.  USFWS and others noted the decline of eagles speeding up through the 1950s and 1960s.

Carson’s critics then will say that what plagued eagles was hunting and poaching, and not DDT.  While that was true prior to 1941, that was not the case after World War II when the laws were enforced well.

When studies indicated that DDT would stop birds from successfully breeding, Carson cited them. Her critics claim those studies were in error.

Double-crested cormorant chicks, dead in their nest from DDT-DDE poisoning; nest in the Columbia River estuary, in Oregon.  US Fish and Wildlife photo.

Double-crested cormorant chicks, dead in their nest from DDT-DDE poisoning; nest in the Columbia River estuary, in Oregon. US Fish and Wildlife photo.

But they were not.  In fact, not a single study cited by Carson in Silent Spring has ever been refuted by later peer-reviewed research, nor pulled back for any reason.  A decade after Carson’s death, researchers discovered that residual DDT in birds, especially eagles and other raptors, prevented the females from forming competent shells on the eggs they laid.  Even when the DDT doses were not high enough to kill the chicks outright, the shells could not survive the mother’s sitting on them.  The shells broke, and the chicks inside died.

DDT was a scourge to the American bald eagle, the brown pelican, the peregrine falcon, and osprey — and probably many other birds.

Healthy pelican egg on the left, and a DDT-affected pelican egg on the right.  Image from VCE Environmental Science.

Healthy pelican egg on the left, and a DDT-affected pelican egg on the right. Image from VCE Environmental Science.

 

Discover magazine carried an article about DDT and Carson’s book in November 2007Discover said that, since 1962 when Carson’s book was published, more than 1,000 peer-reviewed publications support Carson’s conclusions, a record remarkable in any branch of science.

In fact, Carson may have underestimated the impact of DDT on birds, says Michael Fry, an avian toxicologist and director of the American Bird Conservancy’s pesticides and birds program. She was not aware that DDT—or rather its metabolite, DDE—causes eggshell thinning because the data were not published until the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was eggshell thinning that devastated fish-eating birds and birds of prey, says Fry, and this effect is well documented in a report (pdf) on DDT published in 2002 by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). The report, which cites over 1,000 references, also describes how DDT and its breakdown products accumulate in the tissues of animals high up on terrestrial and aquatic food chains—a process that induced reproductive and neurological defects in birds and fish.

History also supports the scientists.  President John F. Kennedy tasked the President’s Science Advisory Council to check out Carson’s book, to see whether it was accurate, and whether the government should start down the path of careful study and careful regulation of pesticides as she suggested.  In May 1963 the PSAC reported back that Carson was dead right on every issue, except, maybe for one.  PSAC said Carson wasn’t alarmist enough, that immediate action against pesticides was justified, rather than waiting for later studies or delaying for any other reason. (The full text of the report may be obtained here.)

Rachel Carson was right.  DDT kills birds.  DDT threatened several species with extinction.

Carson’s science citations were verified by a select panel of the nation’s top biologists including entomologists, certified as scientifically accurate.   Since she published, more than 1,000 peer-reviewed studies have been performed that verify her findings on DDT’s harms to birds.

I have never found a contrary study published in any peer-review science journal, based on research.


Nene, once again more than just a crossword answer

March 26, 2014

Caption:  USFWS Refuge System ‏@USFWSRefuges -   Nene hatchings on Jas Campbell #Refuge are 1st in Hawaii in centuries http://bit.ly/1jBxFrT  pic.twitter.com/PK2l9PVa3v

Caption: USFWS Refuge System ‏@USFWSRefuges – Nene hatchings on James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge are first in [Oahu] Hawaii in centuries http://bit.ly/1jBxFrT pic.twitter.com/PK2l9PVa3v (this photo taken on Kaui, at the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge). Photograph by Brenda Zaun/USFWS/Flickr Creative Commons

These great looking geese, known as Nene,  are thought to have descended from Canada geese blown off course; once they were common on many of the Hawaiian Islands, but by 1952 there were only 30 left.

Bones found on Oahu show they once thrived there.  A few birds — blown off course again, or looking for more territory? — moved to Oahu a few months ago, and have raised young.  Scientists are watching to see how it works out.

With short name featuring only two different letters, “Nene” is a popular crossword answer, and clue.  Some ornithologists half-joke that the familiarity among crossword enthusiasts was a huge aid in getting aid for the wild populations of the bird, and in getting the Endangered Species Act passed into law.

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Thank you, Rachel Carson!

March 16, 2014

An eagle gathering on the Mississippi River. 40 years ago, there may not have been this many eagles on the whole river. Cornell Ornithological Laboratory image.

An eagle gathering on the Mississippi River. 40 years ago, there may not have been this many eagles on the whole river. Cornell Ornithological Laboratory image.

Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology said:

A convocation of Bald Eagles at Dam 13 along the upper Mississippi River (between Illinois and Iowa). If this isn’t incredible enough, photographer Michael Descamps reports that this group represents less than half of the eagles that were gathered there the day of the photo. What an incredible event to witness and thanks for sharing!

When the Endangered Species Act passed, and when the new EPA banned most outdoor uses of DDT in the U.S., there may not have been this many eagles on the entire Mississippi River watersheds.  Today, we have healthier ecosystems across the nation, and a lot more eagles, osprey, peregrine falcons, and brown pelicans, among other wildlife.

Gee. Environmental protection works well sometimes.


Birds know better

February 19, 2014

[Species?] on a sign; distributed by USFWS; photo by Allie Stewart.

Eastern phoebe on a sign; distributed by USFWS; photo by Allie Stewart.

Borrowed from the Facebook page of USFWS Southeast Region:

This one is for the birds, or should we say bird watchers! In 2011 there were 47 million birders who generated $107 billion in industry output, 660,000 jobs and $13 billion in local, state and federal tax revenue. Take a look our birding report to learn more: http://1.usa.gov/1d0W06i (Photo: Allie Stewart)

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Sunrise at Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania

October 4, 2013

Photograph posted on Facebook by the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association:

Sunrise at Hawk Mountain, Quelia Paulino, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Planning a trip to Hawk Mountain this weekend? Arrive early to enjoy great views of low-hanging fog and to see the sun peek out over the valley. It’s a great way to start any day. — with Quelia Paulino at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association.

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