The American woodcock. Credit: Scott Neabore

The American woodcock doesn’t scurry in the tide like some beach birds such as plovers and sandpipers. In fact, he’s a bit of an enigma among shorebirds—he prefers the woods to the water, which can make him hard to find.

After many fruitless pursuits, finally I got up close and personal with a woodcock last weekend, while strolling through the shrubs at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, in Virginia. I just may have found my new favorite bird.

I was walking along the wildlife loop, chatting with my boyfriend Scott when I spotted the woodcock, not two feet from the edge of the boardwalk we stood on. He snuck up on me or I snuck up on him—regardless, we startled each other. The roly-poly, wide-eyed, sand-colored bird with the sewing-needle beak stood still and stared at us—suspiciously, like he might fly off or dash for cover. I guess we didn’t look so scary though, because he quickly went about his business, rustling up worms from the sandy soil.

This is when I witnessed the woodcock’s utterly awkward yet endearing shuffle. He slowly rocked his plump bottom forward and back, as he put one foot in front, and then forward and back as he moved the other ahead. (If I were to imitate it for you, it would look something like a cross between the chicken dance and the cha cha.) One theory holds that he walks this way in order shake the ground and stir up tasty earthworms to eat.

I’ve posted a YouTube video below (credit user zoomer1zoomer) in case you too want to learn how to groove like a woodcock.


A Surprise Visitor

This Eurasian wigeon at Rockland Lake State Park, NY is most likely a vagrant from Europe.

When I was in Colorado this past summer, I stopped in at a Forest Service office to ask the naturalist there about local birding hotspots. Having just arrived from New York, my boyfriend and I were looking to cross some western birds off of our birding checklist—a dusky grouse or a western wood-peewee perhaps? Yes, yes, she said as she pulled out a map of the northwestern part of the state and circled some reservoirs and access roads with a yellow highlighter. But wait, she said, I’ll do you one better, the other day someone spotted a vagrant blue jay along the side of THIS road—super cool! Thank you, we said as we folded up the map, exasperated. Those crazy jays are anything but rare visitors where we come from. They are common and pesky. All summer we watched them heckle the little birds at the feeder and every morning the one outside my window woke me with his raucous jeering—oh please, we had seen enough!

But you know what they say: One man’s trash is another man’s treasure—or in this case, one region’s common species is another region’s rare find. It happened again to my boyfriend and me this past weekend. This time, we were the excited ones. On a small pond next to the parking lot at Rockland Lake State Park, consorting with a flock of mallards: A Eurasian wigeon. We’d never seen a duck that looked quite like it and easily identified it with our Peterson guide—the chocolate head with the cream colored streak down the front gave it away.

The Eurasian wigeon, as you might have guessed, is a pretty ordinary bird in Europe (and Asia too)—but a pretty uncommon sight this side of The Big Pond. We have our own version here—the American wigeon.

So what was the European visitor doing here? It’s hard to tell why birds end up so far off course sometimes. Migrating birds (the Eurasian wigeon flies from northern Europe and Iceland to north Africa and the islands of the eastern Atlantic) can get caught up in storms and blown thousands of miles off course (think Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz). Some birds have genetic abnormalities that throw off their sense of direction and cause them to migrate into unfamiliar territory. And some just naturally happen to wander farther and wider than most others of their species.

When we returned to the spot Monday morning, the Eurasian wigeon was still there, dabbling in the duck pond with a few mallards, a bunch of gadwalls, and at least one American wigeon. It will be interesting to see how long he stays—another Eurasian wigeon (or possibly the same one?) was spotted in almost the same location three years ago, and stayed through part of the winter. Is our Eurasian wigeon fueling up for more flight, or has he, perhaps, found his own Casablanca?

Hopetoun Falls, Australia. A great deal of work is being done around the world to preserve rainforest biodiversity. (From wikipedia commons)

Public Library of Science (PLoS), launched an interesting nature communications experiment this month: The PLoS Biodiversity Hub. The website aggregates scientific studies on the theme of biodiversity from open access scientific journals.

A couple useful things about the new site I want to highlight:

1. A panel of biodiversity experts vets the importance of studies that appear on the Hub’s main page.

2. All articles featured on the Hub are open access, meaning the studies are available in their entirety on the web. (Music to the ears of a journalist who no longer has a university library account through which to access scientific journal articles!)

3. CONTEXT, CONTEXT, CONTEXT! This may very well be the most important feature of the biodiversity hub (and the part of the site that holds the most potential for outreach to journalists, policy-makers and interested citizens outside of the scientific community). Science is an incremental process (even though it’s often portrayed as one exciting new discovery after another), and when articles are grouped together in one place, it gives a sense of the whole. In this case you start to get a picture of why biodiversity matters. I especially like the curator’s note on some featured articles that explains why the experts decided to highlight a specific article—why it’s important in the context of biodiversity conservation.

I’d love to see the site begin to aggregate news articles on the topic, as well as just scientific articles. Some examples of websites that do this well include The New Fuelist and Environmental Health News (full disclosure, I work for them as a part-time researcher). Maybe a narrow but deep focus on a given theme is the future of science journalism and science news websites.



Black-and-white warbler in Central Park

The fall bird migration is upon New York City—numerous songbird species navigate the cement labyrinth. Weary and hungry, they descend upon the city’s green spaces to rest and refuel before continuing south.

According to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, more than 270 species of migrating birds stopover in Central Park each fall and spring—surprising to me, since the only birds I ever see in my neighborhood are resident pigeons, house sparrows, and one very vocal blue jay that perches on a branch outside my window and calls his little heart out at sunrise. I guess he’s an urban rooster of sorts.

So I decided to take my new binoculars for a spin in Central Park’s Ramble on Sunday to see what new bird species I could cross off my checklist (more than 80 since July when I started keeping count!) I saw magnolia warblers, black-throated blue warblers, a few veeries, a black and white warbler, a northern waterthrush, and a brown thrasher, in addition to numerous pigeons, robins, blue jays, catbirds, starlings, and mallards. But no Pale Male (though the hawk watchers with their scopes were waiting for a glimpse of 5th Avenue’s resident raptor). One black-and-white warbler, flitting around a lamppost looking for insects, rested on the ground long enough for me to snap a few pictures.

So what makes Central Park a migration hotspot? New York City, or rather the sky over it, is part of what researchers call the Atlantic Flyway. It’s one of four north-south migratory routes that some birds follow across North America, from their breeding grounds in the north to their winter grounds in Central and South America. Bordered on the west by the Appalachian Mountains and on the east by the Atlantic Ocean—it’s a super highway in the sky.

Though some bird species—raptors, shorebirds and ducks—migrate during the day, the majority of songbirds—the warblers, thrushes and vireos that stopover in Central Park, navigate by the stars at night. The bright city lights can confuse them. New York Audubon has been working with the owners of New York’s iconic structures such as the Chrysler building and Rockefeller Center to dim their lights during migration. Nearly 10,000 migrating birds were trapped in the skyward beams of a 9/11 memorial light display earlier this month.

To a migrating songbird, Central Park is a dark oasis in desert of light in the city that never sleeps.

In January I watched a black bear being born. Lily (the expectant mother) twisted restlessly in a cramped den, her back toward the web cam. Suddenly a small paw poked up from above her massive midsection, grasping air. A short, sharp cry and then suckling noises as the cub found the teat.

Naturally, I was excited to witness the birth, after having taught a black bear ecology class during a stint as an environmental educator in New Jersey a few years ago. I explained to visiting students how black bear mothers give birth in the dead of winter during hibernation, unlike most mammals native to North America that give birth in the spring.

Researchers at the North American Bear Center in Ely, Minnesota streamed video of the new mother and cub from the den in hopes of increasing the public’s understanding of black bears in their natural habitat and dispelling the popular misconception of black bears as hostile, dangerous man-eaters. In a naming contest, web cam viewers aptly christened the female cub Hope.

Now Lily has abandoned Hope.

Whether intentional or not, no one can say—even the researchers can only speculate as to why Lily moved so far from the cub. While Hope slept in a red pine the other day, Lily’s GPS signal quickly wandered off in a different direction. Did she move to forage for much needed nutrients? Was she chasing another bear from her territory? Was she being chased? She returned to look for the cub two days later, but she did not find the Hope, and say the researchers, appears to have given up looking.

While the researchers scramble to find clues of what may have happened to Hope and whether she is still alive, I am contemplating what I’ve experienced while reading research updates and watching video clips of Lily and her cub for the past four months.

Obviously, I (like many other viewers—Lily has nearly 97,000 Facebook fans) have grown quite attached to the little bear. But is personal attachment to a wild animal a good thing or a bad thing? Loss is part of nature, but not something we, as humans, are particularly good at.

Watching Lily and the cub has led to a greater understanding of black bear behavior, but perhaps the cub’s disappearance has something else to teach about understanding nature—humility, acceptance that we can’t know everything, including a bear’s reasons for separating from her cub.

One species of Asian carp, silver carp, jump into the air when frightened by watercraft. Credit: http://www.asiancarp.org

Asian carp sure are sneaky for their size. The voracious, filter-feeding behemoths have largely evaded efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to poison, hunt and electroshock them out of Chicago’s canal system. Before they can be picked off, biologists must first locate their hangouts. One solution: use the carp to rat out their buddies.

The use of Judas carp is an option for consideration, Lindsay Chadderton, an aquatic ecologist at Notre Dame told Detroit’s Metro Times. As the name implies, the strategy involves radio tagging a few “traitors” that unwittingly lead scientists to large schools of carp.

The approach has been successful in Australia. Biologists used Judas fish to help control invasive carp in two lakes in Tasmania. Radio tagged males led scientists to groups of spawning carp where they could then capture many fish at once. Sexually mature carp were also placed in cages and used to lure members of the opposite sex into areas where they could be easily trapped.

Biologists working on the Asian carp problem in the Chicago canals could potentially use this approach to allocate resources and concentrate future eradication efforts—to get more bang for the fish killing buck.

Maya nuts, also known as breadnut or ojoche, drying in the sun. (From wikimedia commons)

What do healthy ecosystems and healthy children have in common? A lot, according to a panel of experts on biodiversity and child health. The panelists spoke Friday night at the American Museum of Natural History during a special event held to increase awareness for the International Year of Biodiversity.

Some highlights from the panel discussion:

-In the area around Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, nearly half the children are chronically malnourished. The once wildlife-rich ecosystem was reduced to a depleted landscape ravaged by grass fires and drought after a civil war in the 1980s and 1990s devastated wildlife populations and forests in the park. Dr. Sigrid Hahn, associate director of the Mount Sinai Global Health Center at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, is involved with family planning programs in the area around the park. Studies have shown that spacing pregnancies two to three years apart not only reduces the strain on natural resources in the area, but infant mortality as well.

-In Guatemala, independent cooperatives of women are harvesting Maya Nut, a tree seed high in nutrients such as protein, calcium, potassium, iron and zinc. They grind the nuts into flour, which they sell to school lunch programs within Guatemala where nearly half the kids under five lack access to high quality food, according to Erika Vohman, executive director of the Equilibrium Fund. The Maya nut, also known as Ojoche by the indigenous people, is more nutritious than corn or soy, and helps protect forest biodiversity—an estimated 85% of birds and other animals in the rain forest feed on the tree at some point in their life.

-According to Montira Pongsiri, an environmental scientist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, children’s health is now at the core of the EPA’s work.

The panel was strong on the link between biodiversity and children’s health issues in the developing world, but when posed a question by an audience member on how to make a connection between health and biodiversity in a city like New York, where our dependence on ecosystem services for survival is less tangible, none of the panelists answered the question.

Aaron Bernstein, a pediatrician at Harvard Medical School and author of the book Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity, made an interesting comment. He said to get people to change their behavior, they need to know what is at stake for themselves. Perhaps child health can be a powerful lens through which to work toward biodiversity conservation, but if the link between the health needs of developed countries and biodiversity isn’t tangible, will it really resonate with some of the world’s biggest polluters and habitat destroyers?

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