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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Franklin's or Laughing?

For the past few days Texas birders have debated a gull found by Dan Jones in Hidalgo County. Is it a Laughing or Franklin's? There have been a few Franklin's lingering in South Texas this summer, and, of course, Laughing is a common breeding bird. You can see Dan Jones' photos at the following:

I have included a photo of a fall Franklin's and a Laughing side-by-side on East Beach in Galveston. Notice the difference in head shape, bill size, white tips on the primaries, and overall dainty "giss" that characterizes Franklin's.

Look at Dan's photos and let me know what you think.


Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Belize-Texas Connection

A friend forwarded me a wonderful article about a Common Yellowthroat, migrating through Belize, that returned to San Bernard NWR in Texas (not far from where I live). The details are available on the blog Neotropical Migrant Birds in Belize that details the research there that is focused on these long-distance travelers.

Now just where did that bird winter? Here is a bird, whose brain is the size of a black-eyed pea, that can find its way from the tropics back to the Texas coast.There are many nights when I have a hard time finding my house! No matter how long I study these creatures (now over 30 years), they never cease to startle me.

I love Pablo Neruda. Not only a Nobel Prize winning poet, Neruda was a dedicated birder. Here is a quote from one of his poems (translated to English) that captures the allurement of this Common Yellowthroat's wanderings:

Bird by bird
I have come to know the earth

Friday, June 19, 2009

Last Birder in the Woods - Congressional Letters

Here are the two letters of support (one for the House, one for the Senate) that are posted on the National Wildlife Federation website. I find the list of supporting organizations to be fascinating. Who would have thought that the National Audubon Society and the National Rifle Association would join forces to promote this legislation?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Last Birder in the Woods?


The new administration has proposed creating a 21st Century Youth Conservation Corps. Included in this proposal is additional funding for youth environmental education programs, with small increases in a variety of existing programs. Of particular interest is funding for young people to participate in conservation programs on public lands such as national wildlife refuges.

All of this sounds well and good. Almost every not-for-profit has hitched its wagon to "Last Child in the Woods." Isn't this what this new legislation is about?

Yes and no. What I find impossible to explain is that out of the $70 million budget ($50 million for new programs, $20 million for existing), $30 million is being set aside for recruiting new hunters and anglers. According to the Department of the Interior (DOI), “the 2010 budget includes an increase of $30.0 million to help set the stage for the next wave of hunters, anglers, wildlife, and other natural resource managers. The request includes $28.0 million for a new discretionary Federal Aid in Wildlife grants program to help States, Territories, and Tribes establish new creative programs to educate and energize young hunters and anglers.”

As some readers may be aware, there are four priority public uses for United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) wildlife refuges: hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography, and environmental education and interpretation. I could argue that three of the four uses are being addressed with this proposed budget (hunting, fishing, education). Strikingly absent are wildlife observation and photography. Not one cent is being proposed for attracting new young birders, naturalists, and photographers to the outdoors.

According to the agency’s own research, there are 30 million anglers, 12.5 million hunters, and 71.1 million wildlife viewers (in each case, age 16 and older) in the U.S. Of these wildlife viewers, 47.7 million watch, feed, and photograph birds.

As for youth recruitment, in 2006 there were approximately 12 million anglers age 6 to 15, with 10.5 million who only fished (i.e., did not hunt as well). There were 1.77 million in the same age group that hunted, with only 208,000 who only hunted. Looking at the age group 9-11, the hunting sample is too small to be statistically significant (around 38,000).

By contrast, there were 13.6 million Americans aged 6-15 who found their way to nature through watching, feeding, and photographing wildlife. Even more interesting were the over 4 million age 6 to 8 who watched, fed, and photographed wildlife, compared to the 3.2 million who fished and a sample for hunting that was too small to be reliably reported.

According to the most recent research from the Outdoor Foundation, among boys ages 6 to 12, participation in outdoor recreation dropped from 79% to 72% in 2007. Among girls of the same age, participation dropped from 77% to 61%.

Among all age groups, fly fishing decreased by 2.1%, freshwater fishing decreased by 15.8%, saltwater fishing increased by 5.2%, hunting (any type) decreased by 5.1%, and wildlife viewing increased by 8.3%. I mention these Outdoor Foundation figures since they tend to be the most conservative of the major surveys done on outdoor recreation, with the National Survey of Recreation and the Environment being the most liberal.

In comparison, the USFWS reported that in 2006, 30.0 million U.S. residents 16 years of age and older fished compared to 34.1 million who fished in 2001, a drop of 12 percent. Hunting dropped by 4 percent, from 13.0 million in 2001 to 12.5 million in 2006.

Here is what the USFWS has to say about wildlife watching: “The increase in wildlife-related recreation participation from 2001 to 2006 was due to wildlife watching (observing, feeding, and photographing wildlife). During this period, the number of people wildlife watching increased by 8 percent. Although their overall expenditures showed little change, they did spend 38 percent more on trips, 18 percent more on bird food and wildlife-watching equipment (such as binoculars, cameras, bird feeders), and 26 percent more on auxiliary equipment.”

Finally, according to the same agency’s assessment of the economic impacts of national wildlife refuges (Banking on Nature 2006), 82% of the total expenditures is generated by nonconsumptive activities (wildlife viewing) on refuges. Fishing accounts for 12% of expenditures, and hunting generates 6%.

As a birder, you might ask how does the DOI and the USFWS completely ignore a primary public use of the agency (as defined by the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966, amended by Public Law 105-57, approved October 9, 1997, 111 Stat. 1253,) one that has demonstrated effectiveness in attracting young people to the outdoors?

Perhaps here is the answer. According to the DOI information sheet, "hunting and fishing have long played an important role in our Nation’s development and served as the roots of today’s conservation movement. Today, hunting and fishing groups help guide and influence our conservation policies. In his campaign for President, Barack Obama committed to support America’s hunting and fishing traditions, including providing State fish and game agencies with additional resources and encouragement to reach out and educate young men and women about hunting and fishing opportunities, hunter safety, and the basic principles of fish and wildlife management." Is this new administration interested in change?

How is it that the National Audubon Society--purportedly a primary proponent of wildlife watching --signed support letters sent to Congress promoting legislation that so blatantly excludes wildlife watching? Why is the Sierra Club supporting this legislation without the inclusion of activities that predominate among its own members? Why are organizations such as the American Birding Association, the American Bird Conservancy, and the various bird clubs and state organizations silent? Where are the voices of the 47.7 million birders?

There may still be time to change this legislation if there is a groundswell of complaint from wildlife watchers (birders, in particular) around the nation. This proposed legislation has everything to do with birding, and now is the time for birders to speak up or shut up.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


BirdSpert is now using Technorati Profile

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Welcome to the Neighborhood!

Although my work through Fermata has allowed me to travel to exotic areas of the world to see birds, I still get a thrill out of seeing something new in the neighborhood. For example, over the past few years Lesser Goldfinches have spread from the near westside of Austin into the central city. In my lifetime White-winged Doves, once limited to the south Texas border region, have spread across the state and have become urbanites (and the bane of my bird feeders). Apparently not all birds suffer from man's encroachment on the pristine habitats where many birds thrive.

An example of a bird that has apparently benefited from humans (other than the obvious Rock Pigeon and European Starling) is the Cave Swallow. This species only appeared in the U.S. at the end of the 1800s, not arriving in Texas until the early 1900s. When I first began birding in the early 1970s, this swallow's range was generally limited to the Texas Hill Country (where I live now). The bird originally nested in caves, often sharing space with bats (such as the Mexican free-tailed bats in this area).

Like the bats, this swallow has benefited from the development of artficial caves - bridged, tunnels, and culverts - as we have built our roads and habitations across the state. Now they extend well into east Texas, and have become a mainstay in many areas of this state. And just as the bats under the Congress Street Bridge here in Austin have become a part of urban life (and a tourism draw), the Cave Swallows this year (along with Great Horned Owls) have moved into my neighborhood.

These photos were taken this afternoon under the Windsor Street bridge down the hill from my home. The young swallows are well along in their development, and will be flying within days, I suspect. The Barn Swallows that nested here originally have been displaced (in itself an interesting process), and now we have around a dozen Cave Swallow nests, each abrim with nestlings.

Notice how the bottom of this nest appears different from the upper level. The bottom of the nest has grass and other fibers hanging out. This is a Barn Swallow nest from last year that has been reworked by the Caves. The top of the nest is almost exclusively made of mud (although in many places Caves use bat guano as well). As Paul Palmer points out, this is an excellent example of niche use sequencing (Barn Swallows as pioneers under the bridge, ultimately displaced by Cave Swallows). This year mostly Caves are nesting under the bridge, with one pair of Barn Swallows attempting to nest on the northern edge of the colony.

Do the Caves physically displace the Barns, or do they simply use old nests as an anchor for their new platforms? My belief is the latter. The Caves simply take advantage of the Barn Swallow efforts from previous years. Are the Caves unable to afix their nests to the smooth concrete surface under the bridge, and therefore depend on Barns to pioneer the colony?

Here is a photo that raises additional questions. This appears to be an old Barn Swallow nest anchored to that of a mud dauber. If a Cave now takes advantage of this structure, it will be the third iteration (mud dauber to Barn Swallow to Cave Swallow).

Whatever the mechanism, the Cave Swallows appear here to stay. Welcome to the neighborhood!


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