Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.

Our owl Ramsey last reported from N.D.

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird biology, Bird migration Updated: April 24, 2014 - 8:02 PM

The Minnesota Snowy Owl named Ramsey is slowly working its way north, most recently located in Ramsey, N.D., of all places. Here is yesterday’s report from Scott Weidensaul, coordinator of Project SNOWstorm, the Snowy Owl tracking project of which Ramsey was part.
    
From Ramsey, to Ramsey, by Ramsey
By Scott Weidensaul
 
Shakespeare said a rose by any name would smell as sweet, but what about an owl by any name?

We nicknamed our tagged owls for locations and geographic features -- a better means keeping them straight than easily confused band numbers, without needlessly anthropomorphizing them with human names. And we weren't always especially creative -- which is why the male owl banded in Ramsey, Minnesota became, well, Ramsey.

If you've been reading this blog all winter, you'll recall that Ramsey was the most localized snowy owl we had, scarcely moving half a mile all winter from where he was tagged. But since he started migrating a month ago, he's put some miles under his wings -- first south and west, and now northwest.

He's been AWOL for weeks at a time, hunting prairie country in southwest Minnesota with poor cell reception. He dropped off the radar again after April 5, and didn't resurface until Sunday night, having made a nearly 300-mile (480 km) flight up into northeastern North Dakota.

What caught my eye -- and stirred my memory -- was seeing his location just east of Devil's Lake. That's the heart of prairie pothole country, the fabulously rich breeding ground for waterfowl and shorebirds, a maze of millions of small lakes and marshes, and I'd spent several glorious summer weeks in the late 1990s exploring that part of the pothole region.

What I hadn't noticed was exactly where Ramsey was, until Steve Huy emailed me.

"Did you notice Ramsey is headed straight for Ramsey, N.D.?” he asked.

Actually, as Steve and I soon realized, he was already there -- shortly before dawn on Sunday he'd crossed the line from Nelson County to Ramsey County.

What are the odds? Pretty steep. There appear to be just eight towns or counties in the country named Ramsey...and he's found one of them.

(If he wants to make this an international habit, he'll have to make a big right turn -- Ramsey, Canada, is a mining ghost town, and it's 750 miles [1,200 km] to the east in Ontario.)

Kidding aside, Ramsey is following a decent track for maintaining cell reception as long as possible. Not that there are a lot of towers in North Dakota -- there aren't. But Manitoba just to the north has better coverage than western Ontario, and Saskatchewan to the west of it has even more towers.

The diminishing number of owls checking in every three days suggests a number of them may already have moved into country beyond the cell tower -- and contact with us, at least until next winter. 

(The location transmitters the owls carry can store up to 100,000 pieces of data, all available for download when the birds next come within cell-tower range.)

Another chickadee with deformed bill

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird biology Updated: April 23, 2014 - 3:55 PM

Another Black-capped Chickadee with a deformed bill is being seen in Minnesota. This bird is coming to feeders at the Duluth home of author/birder/blogger Laura Erickson. 

The bird previously mentioned here was seen in Maple Grove in February. These two join several other reports of Minnesota birds with this deformity (photo below by Laura Erickson), including more chickadees.

If you see such a bird, any species with a deformed bill, please report it to http://alaska.usgs.gov/science/biology/landbirds/beak_deformity/observerreport.php

Biologists at U.S. Geological Survey offices in Alaska are tracking these sightings. Several thousand birds with this deformity have been reported in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest in the past several years. Reason for the deformities, unknown at present, is being sought.

Name that song? Princeton has an app for it

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird identification Updated: April 22, 2014 - 5:50 PM

Have you ever listened to a bird song first sung by the bird in front of you, and then sung by the presumed bird on a recording? Ever done that and wished that the two songs sounded more alike? Wished for help?

Help is on the way, coming via — what else? — a phone app. 

Princeton University Press soon will release two apps, one for eastern birds, the other for western. There will be approximately 60 species on each. (Yes, yes, you want them all; maybe next year.) For now, Princeton says BirdGenie™ will be at least 90 percent accurate in naming thel singer from the chosen five dozen. These will be, for the most part, species we commonly know as backyard birds. 

Most birds are heard before they are seen, and some are only heard. This app should add much pleasure for what we commonly know as backyard birders.

The apps will be available for Apple® or Android® smartphones or tablets. You will record bird songs with the device’s built-in microphone, the app working its Shazam®-like magic to provide you with the closest match or a list of possible matches. 

You can store the recordings in the app. Your can be share them directly from BirdGenie. The app is self-contained, so once downloaded, internet connectivity is not needed for field use.
 
You can read more about these apps (Backyard Birds East, Backyard Birds West) at the following links:
 
East: http://press.princeton.edu/titles/10411.html
West: http://press.princeton.edu/titles/10412.html

Nearby nesters

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird biology, Bird identification, Birds in the backyard Updated: April 22, 2014 - 9:51 AM

Here are the pair of Red-tailed Hawks that are nesting near our home. In the first photo the birds are in the upper righrt corner, one of them taking flight. The nest is at upper left. The second photo shows one of the birds eating, at right, while its mate watches, left. The pair of Wood Ducks are nesting in a box at the edge of the pond in our back yard. 

The sixth extinction belongs to us

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird conservation Updated: April 19, 2014 - 12:12 AM

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert, Henry Holt and Company, hardcover, 319 pages with index, with charts and illustrations, $28.

Extinction occurs so slowly we rarely know it’s happening. A pigeon here, a woodpecker (maybe) there, a near-miss with a condor. We are, however, 200,000 years into an extinction event that likely will change everything we know about life on earth. Recognized or not, it is a mass extinction, the sixth extinction, and it belongs to us.

“The Sixth Extinction,” a book by Elizabeth Kolbert,  briefly explains the five previous mass extinctions on earth and their causes. The sixth extinction, examined in detail, not so coincidentally began at the time humans began to migrate out of Africa, Kolbert says. This extinction is moving at a pace far exceeding geologic time scale. She calls it the Anthropocene extinction. Anthro comes from the Greek word for humans.

Kolbert is an excellent writer, clear with facts, and with a sense of humor, not that this is a humorous topic. The stories she offers as examples of what is happening to us are well chosen and crisply written. The topic is important to us even though the ending will not be known for hundreds of thousands of years. It looks to be tough going between now and then.

The five pervious mass extinctions each ended a geological era, from the Ordovician, 444 million years ago to the Cretaceous, “only” 60 million years behind us. The latter is attributed to a huge astroid that slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula, ending dinosaurs and about 75 percent of all life on the planet. 

The collision produced what Kolbert calls “a vast cloud of searing vapor and debris that raced over the continent, expanding as it moved, and incinerating everything in its path.” How hot? How fast? Kolbert quotes a geologist’s explanation: “Basically, if you were a triceratops in Alberta you had about two minutes before you were vaporized.”

Not all extinction events have such profound and immediate affect. They usually are measured in geologic time. The one we’re living through will be so, but has a local pace that can be breathtaking.

Kolbert tells her story by visiting 13 of those local places. She tells the story of how a particular creature disappeared forever. 

For example, amphibians. They are the world’s most endangered class of animals, Kolbert says. The background rate of extinction, that which happens in the course of time, is probably about one amphibian species in a thousand years, according to educated estimates. A more exact number is not available because frogs and their relatives are not built to leave fossil remains.

No one is going to actually witness that once-in-a-thousand-years extinction. Today, however, “Pretty much every herpetologist working out in the field has observed several extinctions,” she writes.

Kolbert says that in the course of writing this book, she encountered one frog species that has since gone extinct, and three or four others now extinct in the wild. It is not just herps. Every living thing is under this pressure to some degree. Things that we have yet to name are going extinct.

You know what’s happening. It’s land use and chemicals and weather change. It’s us. It can be as simple as cutting a road through a forest. 

Kolbert writes of an on-going habitat experiment named the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragmentation Project. Among its findings are the behaviors of two South American bird species. White-crowned Manakins cross roads at will. The Scale-backed Antbird, however, is very reluctant to do so. A new road, then, can reduce the readily used territory for that bird. With enough roads that bird eventually can be reduced to nowhere to live and nothing to eat.

We’re cutting the world into ever-smaller pieces, among the long list of other things we’re doing. You might wonder if any bird species nesting in Minnesota reacts to highways, roads, and driveways in this fashion. If so, we most likely will know when it’s too late to do much about it. 

Can we stop what we are doing to our planet? Can we even slow the Anthropocene extinction? It doesn’t seem so today, does it? We will, however, get to watch it happen. We have front-row seats at the disaster movie in which we star.

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