Lafayette trip report: 3

I closed out my field trips at the convention with a bang on Sunday, riding a van driven by Donna Dittmann and Steve Cardiff into Jeff Davis, Calcasieu, and Cameron Parishes west of town. We hit the farmland (much of it in rice) and refuge impoundments and saw a surprising variety of birds from various families, some of them I expected and some that I didn’t—American Coot (Fulica americana) (known locally as the “Ivory-Billed Gallinule”), the spectacularly-plumed Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus), shorebirds, waders, Dickcissel (Spiza americana), grackles, larids, and the “wow” bird of the trip, Northern Caracara (Caracara cheriway). We saw phalaropes doing their signature spinning; stilts on the nest; a mixed flock of cormorants, ibis, spoonbills, and egrets scaring up food; a nighthawk hunkered down on a fencepost; Cattle Egrets (Bubulcus ibia) actually hanging out with cattle. Donna pointed out some remnants of damage from Hurricane Rita, but we remained 30 miles inland or so, so we didn’t see the evidence that Amy Hooper witnessed on her field trip to the coast. The casualty of the trip was the tripod mount from my scope, which shattered (probably as a result of my abuse), but it’s all good, ’cause the mount never worked that well for me. I exceeded my best expectations for lifers for the whole convention, crashing through the 350-species milestone to end at #357.

looking for warblersWe spent the day before east of Lafayette in the Atchafalaya Basin. We scraped up some warblers and my target bird for the trip, Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris), on a walk led in part by Jim Delahoussaye, who lives along the river. (I first saw this bunting in a movie (maybe it was one of the Batman flicks), and when I saw this impossible-looking bird, colored with blocks of green and cherry red and electric blue, I figured that I must be looking at CGI effects.)

fire antsJim helped illustrate why you don’t want to step on the fire ant mounds.

on the bayouThen it was on to the water in a flotilla of three gas-powered flatboats. I didn’t see anything new here, though someone eared a Blue-winged Warbler (Vermivora pinus). But, as my seatmate Dick put it, this part of the trip was “kinda touristy, but cool.” Our destination, such as it was, was a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) nest. When boatman Jacques finally cut the engine, the stillness was so deep that we could hear the eagle vocalizing.

I got lucky and had great weather for the whole trip, in the sense that I wasn’t birding in the rain or in a 30-knot gale. The storms that blew through came on our off day. The hardcore among us took the frontal movement as a cue to hare off into Cameron Parish hoping for a fallout. And the mosquitoes behaved themselves!

On Friday, David Sibley presented on the confusions, delusions, and self-fulfilling expectations of field ID, and told some entertaining war stories, including one about the time that he identified a bit of red flagging tied to a barbed-wire fence as a Vermilion Flycatcher. My subtitle for the talk would be, “Why You May Not Want to Scramble Off to Delaware Every Time Someone Reports a Rarity on the Hotline.”

The highlight of Friday’s chalk talks was a short presentation by Keith Ouchley of the Nature Conservancy on the natural provinces of coastal Louisiana—the alluvial valley (a/k/a bottomland hardwood forest), the savannah-like longleaf pine forest, and the coastal prairies and marshes. Each has been transformed in its own way by agroforestry, as the tallgrass prairie has been converted to rice and sugar cane farming; the pine woods planted in faster-growing loblolly pine; and the alluvial region literally burned to make room for soybeans. We learned that Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis), a pine woods specialist, is responding to artificial nest cavities built into the trunks of trees.

Lafayette trip report: 2

lunch breakTuesday morning our bus departed at 6:00 for Iberia Parish and the coastal wetland habitat of Lake Fausse (pronounced like the choreographer) Pointe State Park, followed by a visit to Avery Island, the site of a managed heron rookery (lots of puffball Great Egret chicks) and the McIlhenny family’s Tabasco sauce plant. I picked up my first lifer for the trip, Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus) while most of the bus was checking out the gift shop. Also feeding young, on the water, were a pair of Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus). Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea) is a regional specialty, and we got up close and personal looks both on Tuesday and Thursday.

One of the things a convention is meant to do is charge you up to continue doing what you’ve been doing, and the workshops on Wednesday by Andy Farnsworth and Brian Sullivan, both with the ornithology lab at Cornell, did just that. Brian’s presentation on technology and birding touched on some of the cool gadgets that we birders with too much disposable income can play with (the Zeiss integrated spotting scope and digital camera is so tempting), and then segued into sources of information on the web (more in a later post) and eBird, Cornell’s web-powered bird observation listing application. eBird’s not-so-hidden agenda is data collection for research purposes, and I left with a mild resolution to start using it to record my Huntley Meadows visits, in the same way that I report nest box activity with the allied app for cavity nesting. But the app is lacking the capacity to export trip reports as URLs (although Brian told me that there’s interest in adding this feature); once Cornell does this, they’ll join the ranks of other players in the social software arena.

Andy Farnsworth covered two areas of his research, monitoring bird migrations using WSR-88D weather radar and by recording flight calls. He talked about all the things that can show up on radars that are neither weather nor birds, like “aerial plankton” (dust, smoke, insects) and sunset, which at the right time of day looks like back-scattered radiation. I found his segment on flight calls particularly interesting, because it was the first time I’d taken the time to look at a sound spectrogram while I’m listening to a vocalization. And since flight calls are briefer (as short as 0.02 sec) and simpler in structure, it’s easier to match sight and sound. Andy indicated that you want to look at the strong central trace of a spectrogram and discount the fainter overtones above and below it (on the other hand, the Eastern Bluebird chip that he played seemed to get its melodic character from the fainter traces in the spectrogram). A buzzy call will show regular variation in the frequency domain, perhaps 1kHz up and down each 1-5 msec. These are the calls we like to call “zeeps”, while the “seeps” stay on one pitch.

Thursday’s field trip took us past the oil refineries, chemical plants, and paper mills of Baton Rouge, up Highway 61, into West Feliciana Parish and the Tunica Hills, glacier-formed uplands (we stopped before we got to Angola and the state pen). We alighted at Oakley Plantation, once a home of John J. Audubon, and Mary Ann Brown Preserve, a Nature Conservancy property. Oakley was particularly pleasant, still cool and dripping from the cold front that blew through Wednesday bringing thunderstorms. Off by myself while most of us scattered to take the house tour or check out the gardens, I got a good look at a Red-headed Woodpecker and all too quick a look at a gray-over-yellow warbler that I couldn’t ID. Similarly, at Brown Preserve, the group saw a waterthrush that our leader ID’d as Louisiana, but I didn’t feel like I’d seen enough of the field marks to tick it. The last planned stop of the trip at Sherburne WMA was nearly a complete washout, as poor scouting on someone’s part left our motor coach unable to get over a steep railroad grade crossing.

Wildlife & Wind Energy Conference

Wind power isn’t quite the unambiguously benign source of electricity that some have made it out to be—for example, the author of the article for Worldchanging. That’s our big takeaway from the Wildlife & Wind Energy Conference, hosted by the Geography Department of Kutztown University and organized by Donald S. Heintzelman. It was perhaps fitting that attendees encountered blustery weather conditions enroute to the venue, located in Berks County, Pennsylvania, in the Appalachian Mountains, not far from the renowned Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.

The first surprising thing that I learned is how large a state-of-the-art wind turbine is. A typical wind turbine is rated at 1.5 MW, stands 70 meters tall, and its three blades span a diameter of approximately 50 meters. Perhaps, then, it’s not surprising that many consider a row of these turbines arranged along a ridgeline to be a blot on the landscape, although I find the monopole towers supporting three thin blades to be one of the more graceful engineered objects that you might encounter: certainly more attractive than a bristling microwave tower or spiderly powerline structure. The language we use to describe a wind generation facility has become politicized: while supporters popularize the term “wind farm,” cons favor “wind plant.” Finally, most troubling is that wind turbines pose a real threat to flying wildlife, primarily birds and bats. And hence the conference.

Unfortunately, the sessions appeared to be designed more to muster opposition to new wind projects in Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the Appalachians than to entertain a wide spectrum of viewpoints. Two speakers from government were briefly heard, plus a last-minute replacement, out of more than two dozen speakers on the printed agenda, and no industry or trade association officials spoke. Q&A time was given short shrift. We heard from citizen scientists but no engineers.

And it’s too bad, because almost everyone agrees that not only is mortality from collisions with the turbines a serious problem, but also that there’s very little good science that’s been done to understand exactly how serious it is, and why. What’s worse, operators of controversial facilities like Mountaineer Wind Energy Center in West Virginia, after suffering bad publicity from reports of bat kills, have restricted access by researchers to their sites. We didn’t learn at this conference how wind turbine mortality differs from kills at stationary communications towers. We know something, but not a lot, about the different effects on migrating and foraging wildlife, on raptors, songbirds, and bats. We have some anecdotal evidence about the effects of weather: fog and low ceilings can exacerbate. Likewise, it was suggested that quiet-running, preferred by human neighbors, may pose more of a wildlife hazard. What research has been done into mortality is disputed: how do we know that field searchers have found all the carcasses before scavengers have?

More than one speaker struck a defiant NIMBY attitude, among them Laura Jackson of a Bedford County grassroots organization. Speakers cast longing looks at the development potential for Chesapeake Bay and offshore wind farms, but no one spoke about the possible effects on marine mammals, birds, and amphibians.

The most pragmatic notes were sounded by David Riposo, master’s candidate at the University of Maryland’s Marine, Estuarine, and Environmental Science Department, who cited Pacala and Socolow’s “stabilization wedges” concept, which concludes that wind power is but one of many measures that need to be taken to address looming climate change problems; and by Michael Fry of the American Bird Conservancy. The ABC hosted a two-day workshop in 2004, and has taken a qualified positive policy stance on wind power, and Fry’s remarks focused on mitigation and incremental improvements.

Also noteworthy was a last-minute speaker from the Government Accountability Office, who provided hard copies of a September, 2005 report that I haven’t finished digesting. She noted that a National Academy of Sciences report was due for publication in January, 2007. One of the points made by the GAO report, and amplified by other speakers, is that the federal government has a limited role in regulating wind power development. In many states, the burden of oversight falls to counties and municipalities.

At the Park: 1

We went out for a short morning to work on the nest boxes at the Park. Since we forgot to bring a drill so that we could mount new boxes, all we accomplished was tearing down box 60. This wasn’t too hard to do, even without tools, because 60 was pretty ramshackle.

Paul spotted a couple of tail-bobbing Palm Warblers (Dedroica palmarum) and there were some lingering phoebes and swallows over the wetland. Or should we say, soon-not-to-be-wetland: lots of grassy vegetation and small willows and maples are springing up along the boardwalk.

slime moldI found several silvery masses of a slime mold in a rotting tree down along Barnyard Run. The lowest such mass (in the image) was a few feet over my head, about the size of my fist.

A new coffee connection

Via, a new site dedicated to Coffee & Conservation. Recent posts include a precis of research by Armbrecht, Perfecto, and Silverman on ant communities in coffee plantations (with the interesting speculation that the caffeine in coffee-based mulch depresses ant populations), and the obligatory (alas) story of kopi luwak.

Why we put pepper in the bird feeder

Via Tangled Bank, Coturnix interprets research by Joshua Tewksbury and Gary Nabhan into the two-part evolutionary strategy of hot chili pepper plants: the fruits are brightly colored, soft, and sweet-smelling in order to attract birds, but unpleasantly spicy to repel mammals. The team fed peppers to birds (a species of thrasher, specifically), which passed the seeds in a viable state; but the seeds of peppers fed to packrats and cactus mice were usually partially digested.