Have you bought your Duck Stamp yet?
If you’ve heard of Duck Stamps at all, you probably think of them as a hunting license for waterfowl. And while they are that, they are much more, too. Duck Stamps represent one of our most successful conservation programs.
Duck Stamps were established in the 1930′s as a way to fund the acquisition of waterfowl habitat. At the time, they may mostly have been thinking of hunters, but the habitat preserved has become our National Wildlife Refuge system, enjoyed and appreciated by millions who are not there to shoot ducks. As pointed out by Barbara Volkle of Friends of the Migratory Bird/Duck Stamp, some of the most diverse and wildlife-rich refuges in the nation have been acquired primarily with Stamp funds.
For $15, you get an annual pass to all refuges. In my neck of the woods, this pays for itself with a few trips to Nisqually NWR.
What a great way to support conservation!
Kenn Kaufman and Rick Wright have each done a good job parsing this year’s taxonomic revisions (PDF) from the American Ornithological Union. They agree that in some ways the biggest change this year is the shift in how we view the falcons, which are now seen as much more closely related to the songbirds than to the hawks, kites and eagles.
Intuitively, this is very surprising! One could certainly explain the similarities in form as the result of convergent evolution (ie., similarities in function and behavior have led to the evolution of similar physical “solutions”). In fact, completely unrelated species can share the same form, which is why anteaters and aardvarks both have long, sticky tongues (for eating ants).
What I find interesting about the hawks and falcons is that many of their vocalizations are so similar as well. For example, listen to these two cuts of a Prairie Falcon and a Northern Goshawk. If these species are only distantly related, then perhaps the similarity of sound quality and structure represents convergent evolution as well. That’s a fascinating thought, because it suggests that theses sounds are not arbitrary, but in fact highly adapted to the constraints of each species’ environment.
Over on the ABA blog, Ted Floyd has nice series about documenting rarities with field recordings.
Ted shows that you don’t need an expensive rig to capture audio snapshots of bird sounds. As with photos, the pros will haul around heavy, expensive equipment and get top quality; but in the digital age, anyone can capture remarkably good audio. (In part 2, he discusses audio editing on the cheap, which will make your recordings even better.)
The key point is not just how easy it is, but that (as with birding in general), we so often hear birds rather than see them. For documenting rarities, or just sending out a “twitpic” of your latest find, recording the bird songs and calls that you’re hearing is becoming another regular part of birding.
Researchers at Duke have shown an interesting new form of selective pressure on bird sounds: juvenile birds learning their songs prefer sounds that they can hear clearly. In some ways, it’s an obvious finding, but still has interesting implications.
Hand-reared Swamp Sparrows were exposed to a variety of recorded adult songs. Some of the recordings had been degraded by being re-recorded at a distance in typical habitat. Other recordings were not degraded. As adults, all of the sparrows sang clear songs; none learned songs that had been degraded.
Why is this interesting? In part, because many other studies have shown that birds are adapting their sounds to cope with human noise pollution. This is the first study that shows how it might be happening.
On a deeper level, this finding adds insight into how bird songs came to sound they way they do to begin with. They are adapted to habitat.
The full paper is in Biology Letters, but you’ll need a subscription.
It’s always great to remember that many birds make a rich variety of sounds, in addition to (or instead of) the songs that we hear during courtship and breeding season. These “other” sounds we lump in the category of “calls” and one of the fascinating things about calls is that we often don’t really know what they mean. The fact that many birds have a rich variety of calls suggests that they communicate a rich variety of meanings.
Case in point: Recently at my local patch I heard two crows giving loud, rapid, throaty caws—I figured they were mobbing something. Looking around for a hawk, I noticed a third, subdued crow in the same tree. Occasionally it gave a weak, nasal caw—the sound of an immature crow.
After a while, the immature flew to another nearby tree. The two adults followed it and continued their loud cawing. They did not physically attack it, but kept up a racket. Once again, it flew a bit further, and they followed.
The meaning of all this? It seems possible that they were chasing away their own offspring from a previous season. Time to make it on your own. It’s also been suggested to me that they were encouraging a young crow that was having trouble foraging on its own.
Always nice to have mysteries.
On the far north coast of Alaska lies a vast area of arctic wilderness containing critical habitat for birds, caribou, whales and many other creatures. Officially known as the “National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska,” it is a place of uncertain fossil fuel value but exceptional ecological significance. It is also one of the most exquisite places on Earth (which I can say not from having visited myself but from having seen two wonderful presentations given by Richard Kahn and Michael Wald.) As you can see from the map, almost none of the arctic coastal plain has wilderness protection.
Currently, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is accepting comments on its new Integrated Activity Plan (IAP) to give direction to land management decisions throughout the NPR-A. This is a great opportunity show your support for choosing long-term wilderness value over short-term exploitation.
Below is more information, reproduced with permission from the Birding Community eBulletin of the National Wildlife Refuge Association.
Four alternatives are being considered:
- A would have no changes, with 57 percent of NPR-A subsurface available for gas and oil leasing, and maintaining the four current Special Areas;
- B would substantially increase the Special Areas and would designate extensive areas around Teshekpuk Lake and the SW part of NPR-A that would be closed for leasing;
- C would provide for smaller additions to Special Areas, make very remote areas unavailable for leasing, and would allow for some leasing around Teshekpuk Lake, and
- D would allow the entire NPRA to be open for oil and gas development.
Most wildlife, conservation, and environmental organizations are supporting Alternative B as the best option for meeting the requirements of the current law to provide a balance between future opportunities for development while assuring maximum protection for vital surface values.
Teshekpuk alone supports significantly high densities of nesting shorebirds, especially Semipalmated Sandpipers, Pectoral Sandpipers, Red Phalaropes, Red-necked Phalaropes, Long-billed Dowitchers, and Dunlins. It also has enormous waterfowl value, with up to 25 percent of the Pacific coast’s Brant population (an average of 13 percent annually) present during the molting season. Significant numbers of other species, such as Spectacled, Steller’s and King Eiders, Greater White-fronted Geese, and Tundra Swans, use the Teshekpuk area. Yellow-billed Loons are also present in substantial numbers.
Here is a conservation opportunity in an area where very little seemed possible just a few short years ago. The public can weigh in until 15 June. You can find details here: http://npracomments.engage-sites.com/
Blake Mathys on the ABA blog had a nice piece recently where he posed the question: Why is sound so hard? In the piece, he laments, “I find identifying birds by sound to be extremely difficult.” Of course there are many, many birders who share his feeling.
So why IS sound so hard? Or at least, why do people think it is? I made some comments on the ABA blog, but wanted to expand on them here, mainly because I want to counter the suspicion many people have that it’s because they lack some native ability. In short, my answer is: Sound may be hard—but it’s not that hard.
Yes, there are some things that make sound inherently challenging, including:
1) Greater variability (esp., songs), compared to (many) plumages;
2) Transience (it’s much easier to compare something seen to a drawing or photo, than something heard to a recording);
3) Most people are visually dominant.
But these difficulties of sound are not the interesting part and not the main story. Every birder out there has already mastered a far more complex auditory skill: human language, and the same skills apply to bird sounds. (Scroll down to the bottom of the Larkwire Glossary to hear some examples of this.)
The problem is not that sound is inherently hard, it’s that the variability and the transience simply make clear that our approach to learning sounds is often flawed.
The fact is that cognitive psychologists could take you into the lab and train you up on nearly any skill, and do so very efficiently. They would do this by carefully controlling three things: 1) the timing of practice; 2) the structure of practice (roughly, from easy to hard); 3) the type of practice (basically, quizzing rather than sheer repetition).
Control these three factors and sound will not be hard.
So why is sound hard outside the lab? Because for most of us, the natural pattern of our exposure to bird sounds violates all three of these critical factors. Timing is too spaced out. Difficulty is random, not controlled. And when we do control timing and difficulty (using CDs), most of us just listen on repeat rather than test ourselves. The very gifted among us learn despite these hurdles; for the rest of us, it’s too hard!
Which is exactly why we designed Larkwire to control all three of these critical factors. The difference that highly structured practice—combined with explanations from a master ear birder—can make is nothing short of remarkable.
Of course, it doesn’t work overnight, but it can make what seemed to be an impossible task efficient and even fun.
Which one is it? (Credit: Macaulay Library)
This month’s ABA Winging It (subscription required) has a fascinating article by John Berry about a habitat restoration project just outside of Newark, NJ. The gist of it is that one simple intervention—managing the deer population—has dramatically changed the landscape and created habitat that is attracting a wide variety of birds that previously did not use the park (South Mountain Reservation).
This is a great story for several reasons. It shows how powerfully resilient nature can be—this heavily suburbanized park rebounding into plant, insect and bird life as soon as the burden of overgrazing is removed. And it’s a reminder that habitat loss (a key factor in most bird species decline) isn’t just about clearing land for condos, it includes habitat degradation even in places that are supposedly preserved for nature.
Which leads to the topic of shifting baselines. I grew up in eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We went into “the woods” and thought we were out in the wild. In fact, we were in an impoverished landscape, like a jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces missing. I think it’s harder for kids to fall in love with nature with so many parts missing.
But it’s great to know that most of the parts are still there and will come back, if we give them the chance.
Every quarter I get to pay the only bills that I really love paying: our royalties to the planet. It’s our reason for being in business and it feels great!
AlTo is one of those tiny, scrappy NGOs that we love, doing conservation in North Sulawesi, Indonesia—one of the most unique places on Earth. They are a model of integrity, efficiency, and integrating conservation with local, sustainable development. Thank you, AlTo!
ABC is a much larger organization, working throughout the America’s. We love their systemic and highly collaborative approach to conservation. Their strategy is based on monitoring and neutralizing the whole range of threats to birds (and other species) and their tactics depend on working closely with many great partners both domestically and internationally. Thank you, American Bird Conservancy!
If you know anything about conservation in Hawaii, you know that it is often a depressing story of a losing battle against an overwhelming tide of invasive species and habitat loss. At Ka’ena Point they are trying something different and it seems to be working: they built a fence.
Using pest-proof fencing developed (not suprisingly) in New Zealand, they have created ecological isolation for the entire westernmost point of Oahu, which is the site of one of the last intact dune ecosystems in the main Hawaiian Islands. People still have full access (entering through a special set of doors), but rats, cats and dogs, mongooses and other predator species are kept out by the fence. These invasives were devastating seabird and plant colonies that have never evolved defences against them.
The fence has now been in place for about a year. Nest predation by invasives is near zero and the number of Laysan Albatrosses using the Point is up an astonishing 25%. That’s truly inspiring.