Wednesday, July 30, 2008

L.A. Fuertes

Since I am on a bird art theme here recently, I would like to point out a new exhibit on Louis Agassiz Fuertes at the Field Museum in Chicago. The Painted Bird: Louis Agassiz Fuertes will run from September 12, 2008 to January 4, 2009. This exhibit displays a number of paintings produced by Fuertes during the 1926 Abyssinian Expedition. More from the Field Museum here.

I found out about this exhibition from Benjamin Clock at Natural History Artworks, a recent addition to my blog list containing lot of great posts on wildlife art from a talented wildlife artist.

James Fenwick Lansdowne 1937-2008

I just found out the James Fenwick Lansdowne passed away on July 26, 2008.
Mr. Lansdowne was one of my favorite bird artists when I was growing up and I have most of his books in my collection (often received as Christmas or birthday gifts from my family). His books often had illustrations of the field sketches he used to render his final paintings and I found those sketches more interesting than the final paintings; something that continues for me still.
Louis Fuertes was probably the first bird artist I developed an appreciation for after seeing his illustrations in Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States in my grade school library. Lansdowne was the next artist I developed an appreciation for, probably about the same time.
Here is a link to a few of his paintings and another link to the CBC news story reporting his death.

Pigment Challenged Penguins

Bill Schmoker at Brdpics recently posted a couple photos from the front and back cover of the current issue of The Polar Times. The photos show two pigment challenged penguins. The front photo is a melanistic Chinstrap from Deception Island and on the back cover is an amelanistic captive African Penguin. Bill also provides a link to the Australian Antarctic Division that has a nice collection of penguins with abnormal plumage pigment.
For some photos and comments on unusual penguins I have observed in my travels and some more links to other sites with photos of different looking penguins go here and here.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Mommas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowbirds

The other day I found this fledgling cowbird sitting in a dead tree at the edge of a wetland. He was quite cooperative and I didn't really think much more about him as I was trying to get photos of a Black Tern that was foraging around the edges of the cattails.

But then I noticed that this youngster was still being fed by it's host parent, a male Common Yellowthroat.

He was busy keeping Baby Huey fed.

This mouth-full had a couple of insects destined for the apparently insatiable youngster.

In goes one.

And out it comes again. Apparently the cowbird was so intent on getting the second insect in the yellowthroat's mouth that it forgot to swallow the first insect (click on the photo to get a bigger version and you can just see the insect emerging from the cowbird's mouth).

Click on this picture and you can see the first insect crawling out of the cowbird's mouth.
The yellowthroat later grabbed the insect back and fed it again along with the second one in it's mouth.

The yellowthroat came back once more with a damselfly before the young cowbird switched to another perch across a narrow channel in the wetland.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Litho #3

Band-rumped Storm Petrel (Oceanodroma castro)

By J.G. Keulemans from A History of the Birds of Europe, including all the Species inhabiting the Western Palæarctic Region. By R. B. Sharpe, F.L.S., &c., and H. E. Dresser, F.Z.S., &c. Part I. (London: published by the Authors.)

More about these images to come soon.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Internet Down

My internet connection at home is down with no estimate on when it will be fixed. Posting may be slow for a while.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Litho #2

Labrador Duck (Camptorhynchus labradorius)

By J.G. Keulemans from - Rowley, G. D. ed. Ornithological Miscellany. 3 Vols. London: Trubner & Co., Bernard Quaritch and R.H. Porter. 1876-78.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Lithograph of the Day

Akohekohe (Crested Honey Creeper) - Palmeria dolei

By J.G. Keulemans from - Rothschild, L.W. (2nd Baron). The Avifauna of Laysan and Neighboring Islands. 2 Vols. London: R. H. Porter, 1893-1900.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Return to Warden's Grove

Return to Warden's Grover: Science, Desire, and the Lives of Sparrows by Christopher Norment. University of Iowa Press. 2008

I thoroughly enjoyed Return to Warden's Grove, probably because it reminded me so much of my own experiences, thoughts, and emotions resulting from conducting my own field work. Christopher Norment uses his own experiences conducting research on Harris Sparrows in the barren grounds of the Northwest Territories to explore the logistical and intellectual challenges of basic natural history field work. Even more so he shares the emotional challenges of conducting research on which a career is based and he explores his internal struggle to fulfill the need for a settled family life with the ache for wild places and a hidden connection to life sought in places internet and telephones can't (shouldn't ?) reach. It is an annual journey I also take with my work in Antarctica.

Return to Warden's Grove explores the role of naturalist and descriptive science in a world of "sexy" science. Norment weighs the importance of his research against the ecological science of expensive equipment and complex methodology in labs far removed from the actual lives of the organisms being investigated and it is somewhat ironic that I was reading this book when news came of a recent genetic study that found some very interesting and unique relationships between different families of birds. The results of the genetic relationship work made national news but the breeding season feeding habits of two Zonotrochia sparrows did not. Both are important in our understanding of the world around us. I confess I much prefer the idea of enduring blackflies and mosquitoes to examine the intimate details of a little known sparrow to working in a sterile lab but I value the results of both arenas.

He also explores the role of killing animals for science. Again, not in the lab setting but field collection for specimens and stomach samples. His exploration is reminiscent of my own feelings having been employed to collect specimens on a few research expeditions. There is also an excellent chapter which compares the "real" story of a dying musk ox with the dispassionate, removed version of the story that appeared in a scientific journal. How many excellent stories of events, emotions, adventure and loss are behind the varnished methods, results, conclusions and discussions in any paper describing the results of field work in any discipline?

Norment also writes of the need to simply watch. He describes how the nature of his research with uncooperative animals forced him into a self described slowness resulting from his focused work. It reminded me of hours spend at the edge of a penguin colony waiting for an incubating bird to adjust something so I could catch a peek underneath to see how many eggs or chicks remained. It was definitely a slowness forced by the work I was doing but I gained so much in understanding by really watching the lives of those birds. He says

"This "need to hold still," to fall into slowness and simply watch, is a chief blessing of focused work in both descriptive natural history and hypothesis-based research. It is a skill that both scientist and non scientist need to cultivate, a vital way to pay attention to the world. Perhaps it also is where science and art can interact with one another - sensory experience as a synthetic, creative process that grows out of watching and waiting, listening and coming into patience. Through observation, it is possible to develop a richness of texture and nuance, substance and form in our understanding of the animate and inanimate residents of this world - and our place in it. It is how we become informed."

Return to Warden's Grove reminded me of a Wendell Berry passage from a work entitled "Healing" from the book What are People For. Berry writes:

"And by it we enter solitude, in which also we lose loneliness.

Only discord can come of the attempt to share solitude.

True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation.

One's inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one's most intimate sources.

In consequence, one response more clearly to other lives. the more coherentone becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.

One returns from solitude laden with the gifts of circumstance."

Christopher Norment has shared with all of us his gifts of circumstance and you should partake in this gift by reading Return to Warden's Grove.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Messed up Google

I am not sure what is going on but I can't view any Blogspot blogs. I visited with Dad tonight and he can view the blogs but can't use Google to do any searches. I can search on Google just fine.
I can't even get to Blogger help to see if this is happening to anyone else. All I get is spinning wheels then a message saying the site is not available.
My guess is that is has something to do with the most recent Windows update and my security software. Hopefully it gets fixed soon. At least I can still compose and edit on my blog but it has cut off my ability to read any other blogs on Blogspot. That sucks.

Antarctic Light

Since I have been spending way too much time on the computer (not even fun stuff but tedious and frustrating work stuff) and I can't view any blogs on Blogspot including my own, I will try this post of a couple of Antarctic photos I just pulled from the archives. Hopefully someone can see them!
Somewhere along the Antarctic Peninsula south of the Argentine Islands.
Sunset in the Weddell Sea near Paulet Island

Friday, July 4, 2008

Bird Survey

Yesterday morning I was able to get out for probably the one bird survey I am going to get done this spring.

I have been establishing a few Breeding Bird Survey style monitoring routes around Valley County in intact prairie habitat to get a better idea of the distribution and relative abundance of bird species in the area. The data collected from these surveys will be fed into the models used to predict distribution in Montana. This survey I did yesterday helped fill in a part of the county where I hadn't established a survey yet.

Valley County has three very distinct major habitat types. The Milk River bisects the county, flowing southeast across the middle of the county to join the Missouri River just below Fort Peck Dam. The river valley habitat is mostly agricultural with large patches of Plains Cottonwood, Green Ash, and Box Elder forests forming the riparian zone along the river. The broad floodplain of the river was formerly large expanse of Silver Sage and probably was a primary wintering area for large numbers of Pronghorn and Greater Sage-Grouse. Most of the Silver Sage has now been converted to irrigated farmland over the last 100 years as a result of increased availability of water in the Milk River from a major diversion of water from the Saint Mary River into the Milk near their headwaters. This major change in the hydrologic cycle of this river has altered the ecology of the river and the associated riparian areas.

North of the Milk River lies a large expanse of glaciated plains. This is the heart of the grassland bird habitat and forms part of one of the largest blocks of remaining intact native northern mixed grasslands left in North America. A good portion of the grasslands in northern Valley County is in public ownership, both BLM and the State of Montana. Much of the remaining land is in ownership of large ranches interested in maintaining grasslands as well and one of them just recently entered into a conservation easement with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to keep it intact. We have had what we hope will be a long term monitoring project for grassland birds going in this landscape for the last 6 years and we feel that we have a pretty good idea of the distribution of birds in this landscape.

Greater Sage-Grouse - I found two broods with at least eight well-grown chicks in each brood.

South of the Milk River is a much different landscape. It is composed of poorer soils and and sparse vegetation dominated by Wyoming Big Sage. This is where some of the best remaining Greater Sage-Grouse populations in North America are found. Which leads us back to the beginning. We haven't been doing the intensive point count surveys in this area like we have done in the northern part so I have initiated a few Breeding Bird Survey style routes on roads through this habitat.
The route I did yesterday took me through part of the area where Mountain Plovers are fairly common and one of the few areas where these birds breed without being associated with prairie dogs. The bentonitic soil in one drainage in particular is not productive for vegetative growth and so it grows Mountain Plovers pretty well. McCown's Longspurs too. This area has been designated a Globally Important Bird Area because of the number of Mountain Plovers found breeding here. I found three Mountain Plovers when I was doing my counts. On my way back to town after getting done with the counts I found another group of 4 with at least four chicks.
Mountain Plover

Mountain Plover

McCown's Longspur

I have found a few Sage Thrashers on my other South Valley County route but none on this one. Perhaps the most interesting and unexpected bird I found this time was a Bobolink. I found one male singing at one of my points and found another on my way back home at the same spot. It was the edge of a reservoir surrounded by sage and rangeland. The rains this spring appeared to have provided enough moisture to fill the reservoir to the point where a good growth of grass occurred along the shallow end of the reservoir. These two birds somehow found this small patch of Bobolink habitat in the sea of sage. I flushed a brood of Greater Sage-Grouse out from underneath the area where the Bobolink was displaying.
One of the most common birds on this route was the Lark Bunting. Pretty much each stop had at least 3 or 4 birds and some had many more than that.

Sage Thrasher


On my way back home I found a Bullsnake on the road. I pulled over to get him off the road so he didn't get run over and he really did not appreciate the attention. This was one of the most aggressive Bullsnakes I have encountered and he did his best to imitate a Rattlesnake by rattling his tail and puffing up and turning sideways. I was finally able to get him to slide backwards and off the road while he was puffed up and striking at me.


Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Penguins in the News

A couple of days ago the Mad Natural Historian sent me a link to this research project. It is a quite interesting article on how to tell one jackass from another. Really. Usually I would not care to tell one from another but in this case they are penguins from South Africa so the story is more interesting.

It seems that the researchers are using recognition software to examine the pattern of breast bands on African (or Jackass) penguins (Spheniscus demersus) to track individual penguins. Tracking individual penguins for research has always been problematic. Placing traditional bird bands on penguin legs resulted in severe problems for the penguins because the band rested on the top of the foot when the penguin was out of the water and rubbed the top of the foot raw. The next best place to mark a penguin is a flipper band. These seem to work the best but have also caused some concern about survival due to potential changes in energetics when penguins are swimming with these bands around the base of their flipper. Results of research has varied on the impact of these bands on penguins and it is probably fair to say that they do affect penguins but the the extent of the effects are debatable.

Anyway, this project aims to use video cameras and software to track individuals in large colonies and claims to be pretty successful. I like the idea of limiting impacts to study subjects and this seems like a rather good way to get survival data but I guess I am skeptical about the utility for some of the research we need to mark penguins for. If this works for young of the year penguins and is able to track them as they molt into adult penguins then I will start to see a greater utility in this method because one of the most important pieces of data gained from traditional banding studies is how many young penguins survive to return to breed. I also question the utility of this methodology for most other penguin species which either do not have such large individual variation in plumage or live in much more remote areas with little tech support.

The other article is from the latest issue of BioScience. The article, Penguins as Marine Sentinels by penguin researcher P. Dee Boersma is an great overview of the current state of affairs for a number of penguins species, but in particular the Magellanic Penguin which she has investigated for many years. The article is spot on with the problems many penguin species are facing but reaches a bit for impacts on the species Dr. Boersma is less familiar with. She uses her many years of research to point out problems with changing environments for Magellanic Penguins but then gives the same level of importance to two singular events she witnessed while traveling in Antarctica. One was a sudden breakup of a traditional nesting area for Emperor Penguins which resulted in the loss of the cohort of chicks produced that year and the other was a year with particularly heavy snowfall that resulted in the same impacts on penguins breeding on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Chinstrap Penguin Colonies on Clarence Island, November 2007.

I was counting penguins on the peninsula that same year and I agree that, much like this past year, large amounts of snow do wreak havoc with the reproductive success of many penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula. But penguins are long lived birds and have adapted to an extremely variable environment by living long enough to ensure that at least one generation of chicks they produce will survive to breed. Single observation points are seldom used in science to justify patterns and Dr. Boersma uses these single observations to make claims about climate change impacts on penguin populations. These are interesting anecdotes that illustrate problems faced by penguin in one year but the peninsula has been warming annually and these impacts do not occur each year. Dr. Boersma also makes some logical claims that warming should result in increased snow and rain during the period when penguins are nesting but provides no data or references to back up that claim. It is also quite possible that in most years the warming trend actually melts snow faster in the spring resulting in more open ground for the penguin to build their nests on. Data I collected at Palmer Station many years ago suggested that this pattern was more consistent than years where snow impacted breeding success. The real culprit for declining penguin populations is more likely the loss of sea ice and disruptions in somewhat predictable krill concentrations near colonies when penguins fledge. As krill populations are reduced due to changes in the marine environment related to sea ice extent, young penguins learning how to locate and capture krill have fewer krill to "practice" their foraging skills on and they simply die before learning to capture enough food to live. Those that do manage to learn have enough krill to survive but the overall population trajectory is downward due to decreases in chick survival. These reductions impact small colonies greater as there are fewer penguins produced in small colonies to start with and when young penguins return to their colonies to breed they more than likely move to larger colonies if their natal colony has gotten too small. Small colonies in particular are susceptible to predation from skuas and often fail to produce any chicks. If recruiting penguins return to a colony with no reproductive success, the cues they probably use to assess the "health" of that colony are gone and they look for other, larger colonies to breed in, further exacerbating the decline of the small colony to extinction. This has nothing to do with increased snowfall limiting reproductive success but everything to do with climate change. The impacts just happen at different places in a penguins life cycle.

She does call for continued monitoring of penguin populations in 41 penguin "hotspots" around the southern ocean and I am glad to say that I am part of the only long-term monitoring project that works throughout the Antarctic Peninsula to do just that. Oceanites has been monitoring penguin populations for over 14 years and has documented the long term changes that Dr. Boersma advocates for all the penguin hotspots she had designated.

Counting Gentoo Penguins

Overall this is a good article that outlines problems facing most penguin species today and provides some wonderful summaries of Dr. Boersma's research in Argentina but it reaches a bit when she ventures into discussions on other species she is less familiar with.