Tuesday, February 28, 2006

GOS offers $1,000 reward for photograph of an Eskimo Curlew

I think this is a neat idea, but I sure wouldn't want to be the one answering the phones!!!

Not too many months ago, news of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker's re-discovery absolutely rocked America's bird world. The phantom of the southern swamps was still beating its head against the hardwood wall, eking out a perilous survival. It was the find of the ages, and gave hope that this magnificent creature might live to fill our darkest waterways with its haunting magic. It also gave hope and possibility here in Galveston that another species missing for a half-century could re-appear and once again turn ornithology upside down.

We are speaking of the diminutive Eskimo Curlew. This slight species joined a number of other shorebirds in a fascinating migration which, in fall, took them east across Canada to the Atlantic Ocean, days of non-stop migration south, with an eventual destination of southern South America. In spring, though, these shorebirds return to America using trade winds across the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, with their sights set on the Texas Coast. Some of our most extravagant shorebirds are thus absent in the Galveston area in fall, but appear in splendor following winter, just after the vernal equinox. American Golden-Plovers, Hudsonian Godwits and Whimbrels make spring exciting to birders on their way up the Great Plains, but for five decades, they have not been accompanied by their tiny curlew-cousin.

The last Eskimo Curlew was seen and photographed on three consecutive springs from 1959-1962, by Victor Emanuel and others. It had not been seen for 17 years prior, and, of course, has not positively been seen since. Most birders would admit skepticism as to their continued existence, but healthy scientific skepticism should never be replaced by dogmatic close-mindedness. Therefore, buoyed by the recent discovery of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in Arkansas, Galveston's favorite birding son, Ted Eubanks, Jr., has announced a "call to arms" to Texas birders.

This March, keep your eyes pealed as you drive near fields and pastures for a midget curlew waiting to explode onto the front pages of every newspaper in America. Eskimo Curlews are not terribly hard to separate from America's other shorebirds, and experts would recognize one at a glance (if they remained conscious). They are a medium-sized, brownish sandpiper (about the size of a bantam hen), and being a curlew they have a decurved (down-turned) bill. The Long-billed Curlew, frequently seen in our grassland habitats, is enormous, and the slightly smaller and grayer Whimbrel (still considerably larger than an Eskimo Curlew) has bold, dark stripes over the crown. The bill of the Eskimo Curlew is very thin and shorter than it two larger cousins, and there is no eye stripe, unlike other curlews.

There really exist relatively few records of this rarest-of-all birds even last century. But in the 1800s they blackened the skies of the Great Plains every spring, and were slaughtered mercilessly. Many draw parallels to the extinct Passenger Pigeon, undoubtedly the most abundant bird in our nation's history. It seems human nature abhors a food vacuum, and our history is to hunt species to extinction. Is the phantom curlew gone forever? Or, like the Lord God Woodpecker, will Mother Nature give us a second chance?

These are questions not even the best American ornithologists can answer. Perhaps the larger question is, "Will we ever learn?"

The Galveston Ornithological Society is offering a $1000 reward to anyone finding an Eskimo Curlew, where is becomes documented through photography. Observers may call anytime, (409) 737-4081, or (409) 370-1515. Ted Eubanks may be reached at (409) 770-9668.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

An academic cockfight?

Here is a story many people have mentioned to me that appeared in today's Chicago Tribune:


Authorship: Jeff Lyon
Published February 26, 2006

FOR THE IVORY-BILLED WOODPECKER, the choice seems to be either extinction or becoming an avian sasquatch. This magnificent bird, with its 30-inch wing span and panda-like coloring, had its last confirmed sighting in 1944 and has long been considered extinct due to the destruction of its Southern forest habitat by loggers and farmers.
Then last April, incredible news: The fabled flier, Audubon's favorite bird and the poster child for environmental loss, had returned from the dead! A kayaker said he spotted one in 2004 in an Arkansas wildlife refuge, a sighting allegedly repeated by two more men, one an author conveniently about to publish a book on the bird.
A CIA-like effort to find the ivory-bill was then secretly made by a team of scientists with strong Chicago connections: It was led by Cornell University's John Fitzpatrick (former bird curator at the Field Museum) and the Nature Conservancy's Scott Simon (a Highland Park native), using Marshall Field V's money. They came home with a blurry video and a sound byte said to be the bird's call. The results were reported in the June 3 Science under the heading "The Ivory-Bill Returns." It was as if a dodo had been found wandering on a beach.
But with no more sightings, doubts are growing as to the credibility of the discovery, and an academic cockfight has begun. "Faith-based ornithology" is what the reputed find was called in an article in the journal The Auk by Jerome A. Jackson, an ivory-bill expert at Florida Gulf Coast University. Jackson says the videoed bird is really a pileated woodpecker. Yale's Richard Prum suggests that the team better turn up more proof in 2006 or they'll have laid a giant egg.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

North America's "Other" Lost Species: The Eskimo Curlew

If you are interested in the story of the "rediscovery" of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, you might also be interested in another species that might -- or might not -- be extinct: the Eskimo Curlew.

Ted Eubanks has recently posted a number of very interesting articles on TexBirds about the Eskimo Curlew, including tips on how and where to search for any birds that may still exist as they migrate through Texas. I don't think Ted's posts are on a web site anywhere, so you'll just have to go check them out on TexBirds.

While doing a bit of research on this issue, I noticed a very interesting related post by Mike McDowell about some strange things he noticed in the last "legitimate" photos of this species: Eskimo Curlew??? I think Mike is right, the color photo just looks *funny.* Could this be an American version of the Hastings Rarities Affair? This is the kind of thing that makes blogging cool.

And just for kicks, since we love rumor-mongering, has anyone ever heard the rumor that there is a small population of breeding Eskimo Curlews somewhere in Canada, but that the Canadian authorities are withholding information on this population from the public? I have heard this rumor from two different birders over the past few years, and the origin of the rumor always seems to point to someone in California...

White Pileated and other tidbits from Cornell

Tom Nelson just pointed out that Cornell now has a page up on "white" Pileateds.

"Ivory-ish" Pileated

That really is a stunning bird. Note that there is also a photo of another abnormal Pileated taken in 2006 by David Luneau. A couple of observations:

1) We still have more photos of abnormal Pileateds than we do of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers;

2) These photos are from 2006, so we know Cornell is at least trying to be more "current" with the info it releases (we can probably assume from this that Cornell does not have any recent photos of an IBWO); and

3) This article confirms that the search seems to be focusing on the White River N.W.R. (the photo was taken by a volunteer "90 km south" of where the Luneau video was filmed.) The two volunteers involved are Sonny Bass and Keith Brady. A quick Google search reveals that Bass appears to be a ranger in the Dry Tortugas (cool job!!!) and Brady is a well-known bird photographer.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Invasion of the White Geese!

Well, there has been an unusually large number of white geese (ie Snow and Ross's) in the Chicago area over the past week or two. Both of those species are quite rare in the city itself, although they can be seen in some of the westernmost suburbs. Judging by the various reports, there must be dozens and dozens of Ross's Geese in the Chicago area this week...I wonder if other states are seeing the same thing? There is also a Greater White-fronted Goose, another local rarity, along the lakefront.

I almost froze my fingers to the bone on Saturday checking out the flocks of geese at Montrose. I saw both Snow and Ross's Geese, the first ones I have ever seen in Lincoln Park, and in fact I think they are the first Snow and Ross's Geese I have ever seen (in my ten years of birding) within the Chicago city limits. (Well, prior to this winter, at least, I did see a Ross's Goose at Wolf Lake a month or two ago.) So right now there are five Harlequin ducks, an Oldsquaw, at least two Ross's Geese, and about thirty Snow Geese hanging out within a couple of miles of downtown Chicago. If it is warmer this weekend, I think I'll walk (or even ride my bicycle) along the entire central lakefront to see what kind of numbers I can come up with. Could be fun.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Another More Credible Ivory-billed Sighting?

If you have been following the discussion on Bird Forum, you know that a fellow named Mike Collins from Virginia has spent some time searching for IBWOs in the general vicinity of the Pearl River, and that Mike has had a couple of interesting sightings in the last few weeks. (Hey, off-topic for a minute, but does anyone remember the great Sandia Crest rosy-finch controversy of a year or two ago? The woman who was responsible for that mess is one of the BF moderators, which is one reason why that Forum has some credibility issues. I was at Sandia Crest shortly after that incident happened and after personally speaking with several people who were present on that day...well, let's just say that the folks at Sandia House have my respect for how they handled that loon.) Back to the point: Mike now feels confident that he has seen a pair of IBWOs. You can check out his account at his web site, Fish Crow.

Two reasons people have been so skeptical of Cornell's Arkansas expedition is because there were very few prior IBWO sightings in that area, and Cornell has spent two years there without finding any real concrete proof. The Pearl has what is arguably better IBWO habitat, and has a history of prior IBWO sightings (not just limited to the Kulivan sighting) that Arkansas does not have, so it has always been high on the list of possible IBWO areas.

It will be interesting to see where this goes from here: Will Mike be able to get a photo, or will this remain a single-observer sighting, like so many past IBWO reports? And if this sighting is verifiable and repeatable, who will be in charge of the recovery efforts in that area? Will Cornell head south, or will some other NGO be put in charge?

It would be quite funny if one guy in a canoe in Mississippi got the proof that Cornell has spent thousands of hours and millions of dollars trying to obtain in Arkansas.

Anyway, good luck to Mike, but I'm still in wait-and-see mode until we get more proof.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Announcing the 2006 "America's Birdiest City/County" Contest!

I just received the following message form Phil Pryde:

Announcing the 2006“America's Birdiest City/County” contest!

The 6th annual America's Birdiest City and Birdiest County competitions will conducted once again during April and May of 2006. The objectives of the "America’s Birdiest City/County" contest are quite simple: to see which cities and counties in the various categories can document the highest count of bird species within its city (or county) limits, identified during a selected 72-hour period in the months of April or May. Because cities and counties come in greatly different sizes, and because some parts of the country (such as coastlines) have inherently more species of birds than others, there are 9 categories in the competition.

They, and the 2005 winners, are:

Large Coastal City Corpus Christi, TX
Large Inland City Chicago, IL
Small Coastal City Dauphin Island, AL
Small Inland City Duluth, MN
Inland Eastern County St. Louis County, MN
Inland Western County Kern County, CA
Coastal Gulf Coast County Nueces County, TX
Coastal Atlantic County Kings County, NY
Coastal Pacific County Monterey and San Diego, CA

Cities and counties of all sizes are invited to join the competition in 2006. The key to success is having lots of birders in the field – there’s no limit on numbers of participants. Combining the event with a fund-raising Birdathon is often a good route to success. And you can pick your own optimum dates. To participate, just send an e-mail to the address below, and indicate whether you wish to enter one of the City contests, one of the County contests, or both. You'll receive the complete Rules of the competition by return e-mail.

It's fine to decide at the last minute if you want to participate; there's no "sign up" deadline. However, you should enter early enough to get organized, and do send an e-mail requesting a copy of the competition Rules. The ABC/C competition is primarily a fun event, but it’s also a good educational and public relations opportunity as well. Start making plans to field your city or county’s team now!

For a copy of the Rules, or for more information, contact: Phil Pryde, San Diego Audubon Society, ABC/C coordinator e-mail: PhilPinSD@cox.net

Yucatan Jay found in Texas!

Well, I just got back from Minneapolis, and one of the more interesting things that I missed in the last few days is the appearance of a Yucatan Jay in the LRGV (Lower Rio Grande Valley), specifically at Joel Ruiz' White-collared Seedeater Sanctuary at San Ygnacio.

I am sure there will be a lot of discussion about this bird, and the assumption by some is that it is an escaped cage bird. Of course, Joel (as you would expect) believes that it is a wild bird, and considering that site's history of being a magnet for vagrants (I was lucky enough to see the Roadside Hawk there last year), and the fact that there were some extreme weather conditions in the Yucatan in the last half of 2005, who can really tell where this bird came from?

One thing for sure is that the TRBC will be (understandably) very careful when evaluating this bird, and that puts birders in a tough spot: we won't know whether this jay is countable for some time, so if you rush down there to see it you risk wasting your time on an untickable bird; on the other hand, this bird may not stick around forever, and if Yucatan Jay is eventually accepted by the TRBC, birders that take a "wait-and-see" attitude may find the bird gone by the time a consensus is reached on its origin.

I remember spending a fair amount of time searching for this species in August 2004 on a short trip to the Yucatan and it is a sharp bird. I have no idea whether it is prone to irruptions or long-distance movements like some other jays are.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Two new yard birds

I have a very interesting yard list. My building is the one one the left side of the photo, the white building with the large brownish box on top, it is in the background a bit. My best yard bird is (was?) probably Snowy Owl.

Well, upon my return from Florida, I added two new yard birds: Northern Cardinal, and....ta-da...Harlequin Duck!

Living along Chicago's lakefront, I don't see a lot of Cardinals in the area, so seeing one in the bushes alongside my driveway on Friday was a treat. And I finally got to see 2 (of the 4) Harlequin Ducks that have been hhanging out right under my nose for the last couple of days. Sweet. Well, technically, I might be bending the rules on the Harleys, they are visible from my building, and my building is visible when viewing them, so...I need to spend some more time on my roof to make sure I really do see them before they head north.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Meet My Alderman!

Well, this is not really related to birds, but I just received the scariest political fundraiser announcement in the history of, well, political fundraisers, from my own Alderman, the Honorable Burton Natarus. Alderman Natarus is known worldwide for his strong support for "horse diapers." You have been warned:

OK, for those of you who don't live in Chicago, that IS Alderman Natarus dressed as the witch. My oh my.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Super Bowl of birding: Rained out?

Well, I was going to do a Big Day, Birdathon, Birdwatch, whatever you want to call it, this weekend to raise some money for a good cause. (Actually, I like the name "Super Bowl of Birding," even though that name has already been used by some other birding groups.) I was even (coincidentally) planning on going to one of the best wildlife refuges in the United States.

However, three problems have come up: 1) I did absolutely no planning whatsoever; 2) My flight was late and I just got in, so an early start tomorrow is doubtful; and 3) It's raining like hell right now. So we'll see what happens.

Two quick notes: First, check out the AZ birding list, a probable Brown-chested Martin was sighted in SE AZ today.

Second, I saw a Great Blue Heron hunting a small pond tonight after midnight. I know that Night-herons hunt at night (obviously) but this is the first time I've seen a GBH hunting in the dark.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Real David Johnson

Just to restate one point:

The David Johnson cited in the Decatur Herald-Review newspaper article cited below is not the same David Johnson that sits on the IORC.

I know the David Johnson who is on the IORC, and I know that he does not live in Sullivan, Illinois. Just to confirm this, I specifically asked the IORC David Johnson (David Johnson iorci?) if he was the David Johnson in the article, and he told me that he was not. As you can imagine, I was not the only person to ask him that question.

There are people posting rumors and speculation about this and I just wanted to set the record straight. Not an earth-shattering point, but something that can be easily disproved.

There Once Was An Ass Named Jack: Send A Message To Terry "Lyin'" O'Brien of the MWRD

Well, the Democratic primary is coming up here in Chicago in a couple of weeks. That means it's time for us to revisit our favorite local politico, MWRD head honcho Terry O'Brien. (Q. How can you tell when Terry O'Brien is lying? A. His lips are moving!!!!!) For you non-Chicagoans, MWRD stands for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District.

You may recall from prior posts that Lyin' O'Brien is the hamster brain who came up with the brilliant idea that Chicago-area birders were in cahoots with Al Qaeda in some sort of plot to do something to Chicago's precious supply of sewage sludge. Yes, sewage sludge. Birders know that smell better than anyone. When you stand next to it, it just plain stinks; the smell gets into your nostrils and sometimes you can't get it out for hours, you feel sick to your stomach, and you try to get away from the smell as soon as you can. But enough about Terry O'Brien, let's go back to the sludge for a minute.

So, Lyin' O'Brien and his favorite puppet, Jackass Farnan, apparently feel that Osama bird Laden and the local Audubon groups have some sort of nefarious plot to attack Chicago's local sewage sludge facilities. (Q. How can you tell when Terry O'Brien is lying to you? A. Jack Farnan's lips are moving!!!) I'm sure you must have seen bird Laden's latest tape, where he said: "Death to America, accept my offer of truce or I shall send my armies to reign hell down upon your land, specifically the sludge pits on 130th Street where my binocular-toting colleagues in evil will assist me!" Or something like that.

Anyway, it's not clear if us evil birders are supposed to steal the sludge, blow it up, or simply contaminate it so that it is no longer the crystal-clear, 100% pure substance that usually comes out of Chicago's sewer system. And of course, if, God forbid, someone does contaminate Chicago's precious supply of sewage sludge, where would we go to get more???? I guess generally increasing security at the 130th Street facility isn't a horrible idea, and now that they've got the birder crime wave under control, maybe they can try to keep an eye out for the folks that dumped that bullet-riddled body along the road that runs just behind the back fence of the facility????

So yeah, we here at BINAC are a little pissed at the MWRD. Birders had been given access to the 130th Street sludge pit for years until Sack Farnan got his lil' ol' self appointed to be Grand Poobah of some national committee, I can't remember the name, I think it was called "Sludgers Hate Ignorant Terrorists."

Anyway, once Sack decided that the citizens of Chicago (and their shit) had to be protected against birders, he did three things, in this order: 1) He refused to allow birders into the pits. 2) He concreted over the pits that had been the best shorebird spots over the last ten years, including one pit that had hosted a number of unusual breeding species (a few of those species were designated as "endangered" in Illinois); and 3) He finally decided to REPAIR THE HOLES IN THE FUCKING FENCE that the local kids has been using to ride their bicycles into the pits. (Still nothing about the bodies being dumped behind the back fence, though. Priorities, priorities.)

So, as you can see, there is just a wee bit of doubt about the motives behind this security crackdown. If there are no birders checking out the sludge pits, there's no one to complain about the habitat that the MWRD destroyed.

Even worse, more than one of the MWRD commissioners indicated to the birding community that they would be happy to allow birders back into the facility, as long as the birders would agree to some minor inconveniences, like having their vehicles searched, or giving the MWRD notice of who would be seeking to enter the facility a few days in advance, so the MWRD could, if it so desired, run a security check on those crazy birders. Of course, Lyin' Jackass didn't like this idea, despite the fact that the proposal to allow birders back into the facility would have subjected birders to stricter security checks than MWRD employees, or the dozens of outside contractors that are employed by the MWRD every day.

But the straw that broke this birder's back was when Lyin' O'Brien promised that the restrictions were only temporary, due to 9/11, and that things would be back to normal after a year or two. Again, with the lips moving thing. Despite the fact that nearly five years have passed since 9/11 without a single attack on any of our great nation's high-security human biosolids waste processing facilities (ie shit pits), birders are still locked out of all MWRD facilities. Even the ones that don't contain high-value sludge and sludge byproducts.