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.

Why birding?

Posted by: Jim Williams under Birds in the backyard Updated: March 31, 2015 - 10:40 AM

Perhaps this quote offers insight into the popularity of birdwatching. It comes from the book “The Orchid Thief” by Susan Orlean.
“There are too many ideas and things and people, too many directions to go. I was starting to believe that the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size. It makes the world seem not huge and empty but full of possibility.”

30 acres of Big Woods -- goodbye

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird conservation Updated: March 29, 2015 - 1:24 PM

A piece of wooded land near our home is about to be developed. This will mean removal of some trees that are 200 years old. The woods is a remnant of the Big Woods that once covered much of east central Minnesota.

The owner cannot maintain the land, and so chooses to sell. That’s understandable.

There about 30 acres of old trees there, a woods deeply shaded in the summer, an understory so thin that walking is unimpeded. I’ve spent a lot of time there; it’s beautiful. It’s not particularly birdy; old woods tend to be that way. It’s heavy on woodpeckers, chickadees, and nuthatches. Owls have nested there, and Red-shouldered Hawks, I believe. Wild Turkeys are common, as are deer and coyotes. 

Thirty acres could be called mostly edge. You can’t walk very far into 30 acres before you come out the other side. The impact of edges on use by animals extends far enough into this woods that little of it is untouched. But five homesites, an access road, and driveways all create more edges, and will turn the entire piece into habitat dominated by edge. All of it will change.

The negative impacts created by edges, according to a study in New York state, bring decreased nesting near trails, altered bird species composition near trails, and increased nests predation by cowbirds, skunks, raccoons, and foxes using the clearings, trails, and roads as corridors. The study also showed that some species of animals are reluctant to cross openings, even to fly across openings. This reduces land available for nesting territory and foraging. 

On the other hand, some species find edges attractive. Vegetation types change. There is more light and more rain. 

Plus and minus. 

Overall, though, with this change we lose more of a habitat type that is disappearing. 

A recent article in “The New Yorker” addressed the environmental impact of roads (“What Roads Have Wrought” by Michelle Nijhuis).

She quotes Prof. William Laurence of James University in Cook, Australia, as saying: “Roads scare the hell out of ecologists. You can’t be in my line of business and not be struck by their transformative power.”

Nijhuis writes: “No matter the ecosystem — forest, prairie, patch of moss — the effects of habitat fragmentation are ruinous.”

So, the woods change, the animals likely leave, and that's the way it goes.

Goldfinches showing the color of spring

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird biology, Birds in the backyard Updated: March 25, 2015 - 11:21 AM

If doesn't look a lot like spring today -- Wednesday -- unless you are looking at male American Goldfinches molting from their drap winter plumage into the bright yellow of spring and summer.

Recent carbon dioxide measurements

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird conservation Updated: March 25, 2015 - 11:12 AM

Week beginning on March 15, 2015:     400.76 ppm
Weekly value from 1 year ago:     400.61 ppm
Weekly value from 10 years ago:     381.26 ppm

Daily Average
March 23 - 401.61 
March 22 - 401.22 
March 21 - 400.73 
March 20 - 399.92 
March 19 - 400.06

Recent Monthly Average 
February 2015:     400.26 ppm
February 2014:     397.91 ppm

What isn't disturbing?

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird conservation Updated: March 24, 2015 - 10:13 AM

What impact do we have, as birders, as we walk trails in parks and reserves and other places we look birds?

A study in New York state concluded that disturbance from recreational use — noise and motion — of such land had “at least temporary effects on behavior and movement of birds.”

The study concluded:

Children and photographers were especially disturbing to birds.  

Direct approaches caused greater disturbance than tangential approaches. 

Rapid movement by joggers was more disturbing than slower hikers. 

Passing or stopping vehicles were less disturbing than people on foot. 

No studies specifically addressing bicycles were found in the research-paper search that formed the basis of this study. (Just wait.)

Road noise negatively affects birds (reduced nesting, etc.) at distances of up to 1,000 meters, so noise from trail users might also affect birds but presumably over shorter distances.

(Another study found that staying at home and thinking about birds wasn't disturbing. Just kidding.)


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