Thursday, June 25, 2015

Post #28 - Is there a disconnect between birding and conservation?

I was asked in an interview last week if I thought that birding and conservation went hand-in-hand. My "No" response raised eyebrows, so I think it is worth a bit of time to here to elaborate a bit further than I was able during the interview.

While I have not met every other birder besides myself on planet earth, I can say that the effectively all  of us (>99%) are concerned with the well-being of the landscapes, ecosystems, and species around us. We understand, unlike a terrifying majority of our human cohort, that we are a constituent part the natural world, and as such, we have an obligation to minimize our impact on it. In recognition of this, we often drive fuel-efficient cars, pick up litter on trails, and recycle everything we touch. We organize community programs and volunteer our time to educate others. Most importantly, our infectious enthusiasm for all-things-birds inspires others to both notice the feathered creatures around them and respect the settings those birds call home. In short, birders are fabulous environmentalists. If mother nature were hiring representatives, many of us would be perfectly qualified. However, and for all the amazing things that our community has accomplished, I feel that we have yet to grow this individual environmentalism into a collective conservationism. Why is this and what might we do about it?

I should say here that I have zero formal experience with conservation; What I offer here is my perception of the process. Conservation seems to require many necessarily labor intensive steps to accomplish its goals. We cannot, unfortunately, just decide we want to conserve a piece of land or species and have it magically happen overnight. From what I have gleaned, conservation takes an incredible amount of coordinated effort to be successful. Research must be performed, funding secured, land acquired, strategic management plans implemented, and reports submitted. Each of these phases seems as though it could turn into a multi-year project of its own. This is probably why conservation is coordinated more through organizations than through individuals; The tasks at hand, and the obstacles deliberately put into place, are so large that no single person can attack any aspect of the challenge alone. Conservation is not a hobby, it is a profession - a generally under-appreciated and underpaid one at that.

Environmentalism works well on the individual scale, but conservation works well when effort is coordinated. So, while birders have made individual decisions to live more sustainably that many others, we have not yet managed to nucleate a grassroots, birder-motivated conservation effort on the national scale. I think this is the function of groups like the National Audubon Society and the American Bird Conservatory (to name just two). These are groups with which I am familiar, but at present, do not feel, as hobbyist birder and photographer, a terribly personal connection. Certainly birders do a tremendous amount to aid conservation, but here we perform more of a supporting role. What I think we fail to realize is the collective weight we possess, and while I am not advocating for the direct creation of a "bird lobby", something akin to that might be an interesting counterbalance to those of the developers, industrialists, and consumers that are already in place.

We bird because we enjoy it and it is fun. In its simplest form, birding is an incredibly entertaining distraction from the routine of daily life. In its most extreme form, it's an incurable disease around which the rest of one's life is planned. As I said in the interview, "Birding is fun. Conservation is work". The challenge that we as a community face is how to get each other as excited about conservation as we are about adding a new bird to our life list's or snapping that perfect photograph. I just think at least some discussion about how to best deploy our collective weight in conservation ventures moving forward is warranted. 

And, just for fun, here are two older shots with which I was messing around this past week. 

American oystercatcher - Haematopus palliatus
Winthrop, Massachusetts, 6/10/12
Canon 500mm f/4 IS v1 + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/1250 at f/5.6, ISO 400

Parker River NWR, Plum Island, Massachusetts, 5/21/12
Canon 500mm f/4 IS v1 + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/640 at f/8, ISO 400

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Post #27 - A quiz about woodpeckers!

As I have had little time for birding recently, and as birding in its summer nadir here in Los Angeles, I am going to use this post to write a bit about woodpeckers. This idea was precipitated by nothing more than this held-over photograph that I took in Costa Rica. I thought, "I know something about woodpeckers, but I certainly don't know it all". With that as the backdrop, I present the first Speckled Hatchback woodpecker quiz. I certainly learned at least something from putting this together. I hope you learn at least a little something too!

Acorn woodpecker - Melanerpes formicivorus
Canon 500mm f/4 IS v1 on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/400 at f/7.1, ISO 1600, Manual

Answers with explanations at the end!

1) There are about how many species of woodpeckers in the world?
A) about 50
B) about 150
C) about 190
D) about 230
E) over 300

2) Besides Antarctica, woodpeckers are absent from which continent?
A) South America
B) Australia
C) Asia 
D) Africa 
E) Europe

3) The largest woodpecker in the world is the:
A) Pileated woodpecker
B) Imperial woodpecker
C) Woody woodpcker
D) Great spotted woodpecker
E) Ivory-billed woodpecker

Northern flicker - Colaptes auratus
Canon 500mm f/4 is v1 on EOS 7D
1/125 at f/8, ISO 400, Aperture priority
This was from the first month I had this lens!

4) All of the following are types of types of woodpecker except:
A) Hammerbill
B) Wryneck
C) Piculet
D) Yellowneck
E) Flameback

5) Woodpeckers generally have how many toes on each foot?
A) Two
B) Three
C) Four
D) Five
E) They have webbed feet, who cares?

Woody woodpecker

6) Woodpeckers have evolved which of the following to help them climb trees?
A) Scaly feet for better grip
B) Suction-cup underbellies
C) Prehensile beaks to grip bark
D) They put sap on their feet
E) Stiff tail feathers to help them brace themselves

7) True or False
Woodpeckers can walk down trees head first.

8) Why don't woodpeckers get headaches from banging on trees all day?!?!?
A) They eat grubs that contain a natural painkiller
B) They have tiny brains
C) They have special feathers on their heads to dampen the impact
D) Their brains have built in shock absorbers
E) They take turns so as not to wear themselves out

Yellow-bellied sapsucker - Sphyrapicus varius
Canon 500mm f/4 IS v1 on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 1600, Manual

1) Answer D. While I could not find an exact number anywhere online (shocking!), I manually counted from The Clements Checklist of the Birds of the World downloadable version (2014). I came up with 229 - give or take! There are 23 woodpecker species in North America (22 regularly occuring + Ivory-billed - however unlikely)

2) Answer B. Woodpeckers are absent from Australasia which includes Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea, and assorted other South Pacific Islands. While they are found throughout Africa, they are notably absent from Madagascar.

3) Answer B, sort of. At 22-24 inches in length, Imperial woodpeckers are technically the largest woodpeckers in the world. Originally endemic to Mexico, they are generally thought to be extinct. If this were officially the case, that would bestow the largest woodpecker crown on the Ivory-billed woodpecker of North America (and Cuba). However, this species is also, and equally sadly, likely extinct. So, as far as I can discern, at 16-19 inches in length, the Pileated woodpecker is currently the world's largest.

4) Answer A. Hammerbill is a figment of my imagination.

5) Answer C. Woodpeckers generally have four toes, two pointing forward and two pointing backwards. As its name suggests, American three-toed woodpecker has only three, as does the closely related Black-backed woodpecker. Incidently, the Eurasian three-toed woodpecker breeds further north than Any other species. 

6) Answer E. Stiff, load-bearing tails help woodpeckers by providing a fulcrum that the birds can use for leverage as they climb. 

7) Answer False. Nuthatches are the only birds that can walk down the trunk headfirst!

8) Answer D. Woodpeckers have evolved several anatomical features to help protect their brains. They have abnormally thick skull bones and they have a spongy meshwork of soft bone, called Trabeculae, inside their skulls to help cushion the brain from impact. There is a very nice article that gives even more information here.

Well, that's it. I hope you learned at least something from this silly exercise!

Downy woodpecker - Picoides pubescens
Canon 400mm f/5.6 on EOS 7D
1/2000 at f/6.3, ISO 320

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Post #26 - Costa Rica, Part 3 of 3!

After 3.5 days in the cloud forest around San Gerardo de Dota, we piled in the car and headed towards Arenal National Park. To reach that destination, we would have to retrace out tire tracks back through San Jose and then northwest towards Arenal. The journey was relatively painless, and I added two familiar kites, Swallow-tailed and White-tailed, along the road.

Our second lodge, Finca Luna Nueva, was a very interesting and unique place. Nestled in the rainforest about 15 miles southeast of Arenal proper, the entire property functioned a sustainable, biodynamic farm. Most of the food we ate was grown onsite, and we learned quite a bit about the farm's inner workings in a series of tours that we took. It is work noting that this particular lodge does not put out hummingbird feeders or fruit of any sort. The property is incredibly birdy, moreso even than our first lodge, but it does not set up nearly as well for those interested in photography. We saw tons of birds, but few of them were ripe for photos.

Birding around out little cabana on the first afternoon, I found a completely different complement of birds than at the higher elevations. Unbelievably bright Passerini's tanagers bounced around in the underbrush while Squirrel cuckoos and Keel-billed toucans foraged overhead. Honeycreepers were well represented as Red-legged honeycreeper, Banaquit, and Scarlet-thighed dacnis all made appearances. Species such as Yellow-bellied elaenia, Common tidy-flycatcher, Buff-throated saltator, Yellow-crowned euphony, Masked tityra, and Red-throated Ant-tanager competed for 'best named bird' on the property. The capper if the first day was a Gray-necked wood-rail that sauntered across the unpaved road that ran right behind our cabana. With my lack of pre-trip studying, I hardly knew such a bird existed.

Rufous-tailed hummingbird

The morning of the second day was spent birding during the farm tour, and the afternoon was spent exploring the farther reaches of the property. Gray-headed chachalacas were conspicuous, as were gaggles of Montezuma oropendolas. Hummingbirds were represented by 4 species, and Social and Pyratic flycatchers joined the more numerous Great kiskadees and Tropical kingbirds in the more open spaces to hunt for insects. Other birds observed included Rufous-winged woodpecker, Barred antshrike, Laughing falcon, Olivaceous piculet, Streak-headed woodcreeper, Crimson-collared tanager, and the absolutely brilliant Green honeycreeper. I could scarcely turn around with finding some new and gorgeous bird. However, the highlight of the day was certainly the Three-toed sloth we found munching on Cecropia leaves. As a bonus , she was carrying a young one around!

Three-toed sloth

The following day was centered on our big zip-lining adventure, but I managed to squeeze in some early morning bird before we hit the road. Highlights from this rather short session included Black-mandibled toucan, White-fronted nunbird, Red-lored parrot, Blue-black grosbeak, and very brief look at a stunning Purple-capped fairy. 3 Crested guans appeared while we were eating breakfast. I had no idea they were so huge. Later that morning, I was even more impressed by the 2 Great curassows that crossed in front our truck as we were being hauled up the side of Arenal to start our Ecoglide zip-lining session. It rained very heavily during our zip-lining adventure, but it was fun nonetheless. A Rufous-tailed jacmar actually flew out of the forest and landed on the actual zip-lining cable before I scared it off as I quickly slid towards it.

Big grasshopper of some sort

Even bigger beetle of some sort (4" long body)

We were rained out that afternoon but returned to Arenal the following day. Since the EcoGlide property had been so birdy the day before, we actually made a quick birding stop there en route to Arenal proper. New birds on that visit included Smoky-brown woodpecker, Grayish saltator, Melodious blackbird, Black-crowned tityra, and Gray-capped flycatcher. I also found the more familiar Northern rough-winged swallow and a very late-migrating Red-eyed vireo. EcoGlide is not known as a birding destination, but they have very extensive grounds around which we were permitted to walk. This habitat is as good as the Arenal Observatory Lodge for those that take the time check it out.

Midday we hit the the aforementioned Observatory Lodge. Between the entrance road and the lodge, I added Spotted antbird, Southern rough-winged swallow, Hepatic tanager, Shining honeycreeper, and Buff-rumped warbler. Birding was admitted slow as it was getting very hot by the time we arrived. The two best birds I found were a gorgeous female Green Hermit in the parking area and 2 Sunbitterns on the road on the way out. As this foray marked the last real birding we were to do before we headed to San Jose that afternoon, closing out the trip with those two birds made for a fantastic end to our week in the country.

The trip was a rousing success. I saw tons of cool birds, and I had a really nice time hanging out with Sonia and her mom. It will be nice to visit the country again a some point, and I am sure this will happen in the not-too-distant future. I was just amazed at how fast the birdlife changed over just short distances. No where else have I observed such an incredible diversity of birds and animals in such a small area. I am sure some of this is just the tropics, but either way Costa Rica was really a special place!

May 14, 2015 - afternoon at Finca Luna Nueva
May 15, 2015 - entire day at Finca Luna Nueva
May 16, 2015 - early morning at Finca Luna Nueva
May 16, 2015 - mid- to late-morning at Ecoglide Zip-lining Adventure
May 17, 2015 - Ecoglide, round 2
May 17, 2015 - Arenal and environs