Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Important Message of Bridget Stutchbury

On Sunday afternoon, I attended a lecture by Bridget Stutchbury, author of Silence of the Songbirds, an important environmental book you need to read if you have any interest in or concern for our North American songbirds. The lecture was part of a series put on at the University of Toronto covering a wide range of topics/issues. Next week is a talk on predicting natural disasters, which I also intend to attend.

Stutchbury's lecture was straightforward and relaxed but also eye-opening and profound. I got the sense that she was holding back her passion, ready to boil over but she had to stick to her PowerPoint presentation (a one-on-one would no doubt be fascinating). A lot of the talk was an overview of the main points of her novel and yet I still found myself surprised by the amazing journey our songbirds take every year during migration, disheartened by the statistics on dwindling bird populations, and at times (admittedly) ashamed of being a part of the problem: mainly bad consumer choices and not using my (modest) knowledge to better spread the word.

Much of the problem has to do with habitat destruction and indeed, this was the focus of her presentation. Forest fragments are far from the ideal nesting grounds for birds where they become an easy target for predators like Raccoons, Possums, Skunks, snakes, and even other birds. The nests are simply easier to access for predators since the fragments are often surrounded by open fields or, in the case of Toronto, cityscape. This disrupts territorial species and forces many to settle for sub-par nesting locations. The energy demands and stress on the parents (building the nest, feeding the young, and for the female, laying the eggs) prove to be even more difficult when faced with these poorer habitats. The protection of the Boreal Forest is imperative.

She also explained the problems in the south. Tropical forests, the overwintering habitats for most of our species, is being cut down alarmingly fast. The satellite imagery she showed us of the destruction of the forests in Brazil is pathetic. Another danger? Coffee plantations. Shade-grown is the best choice, where plants are grown under the canopy of natural rain forest, leaving pristine areas intact. On the other hand, sun-grown coffee (many of the cheaper brands we buy in bulk tin cans or many coffee shop chains) require clear-cutting of forests to make way for fields that are now uninhabitable to overwintering songbirds. Pesticides present another huge problem where regulations differ in N. America and S. America. Although there are pesticides banned for being too dangerous in N. America, there are less stringent regulations in S. America so many of the fruits we buy have been sprayed heavily with pesticides we have banned here! This is backwards. Images of piles of Swainson's Hawks killed by the toxins used in the pesticides are indicative of the extreme effect we can have on bird populations based on the chemicals we use.

I have already written much more than I intended in this post. Read Stutchbury's book and get the overall picture (she gets more into climate change, high-rise collisions, stray cats, and a laundry list of other issues). It's grim but hopeful. I certainly respect all the research she has done into North American songbirds and the message she sends out to the public.

I'll end with a couple of links to one of her newest research discoveries, a huge breakthrough that will change the way we view migration (who knew it could be more astonishing?!). She brought up some of her studies during the lecture and it's amazing how much more we can learn with the new technologies we have at our disposal. It's ongoing work like this that will bring better understanding of how we can stop the serious decline of our songbirds. For my part, I will continue to study and appreciate Class Aves and make changes in my life that will lessen my own impact on their decline.

Birder's World article featuring the new research

York University release of the study

Do try to give both a read, even if it's just a quick skim.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Pileated Woodpecker - a collection of memories

One of my favourite birds to see while birdwatching has got to be the Pileated Woodpecker, a species that stops me in my tracks and reminds me why I birdwatch in the first place. This is one attractive species. With a length of 16.5" and a wingspan of 29" (thanks, Sibley), this is one large woodpecker (the largest in North America if you categorize The Grail Bird as extinct). It is found across North America but is most widespread in the southeast corner of the continent.

What inspires this post is my 4rth experience with the Pileated Woodpecker, which happened just this afternoon at High Park (February 21). After meeting some friends for lunch in the High Park restaurant, I was walking back to my apartment when I noticed a large black bird flying high over my head. I immediately recognized it as a Pileated Woodpecker as the species is virtually unmistakable in flight. I had to stop and run back a few paces to follow its flight path through the woods. Like every other instance where I've seen this bird, I was mesmerized.

My first encounter of the species was, surprisingly, quite a disappointment. It happened at the tip area of Point Pelee (for the life of me, I cannot remember the year but Marianne can help me on this). A group of us were walking and I remember a stir as we heard through the grapevine that Sarah Rupert had seen a Pileated Woodpecker flying overhead near the vicinity of where we were birding. For whatever reason, Pileated Woodpeckers are hardly ever seen in the Pelee area (likely due to the fact that the species inhabits old-growth forests, which Pelee is definitely not. Rondeau Provincial Park is a fairly reliable, nearby area to see them I hear). So, when the species was seen flying over the tip, a search party was started, which I was a part of. We searched for a couple of hours, starting at the tip and working our way northward through Post Woods on the east side of the park. The most frustrating part of the expedition was that the bird was heard by the group but never relocated! This was a new Pelee bird for me (and a new species at the time) so the overall experience, though exciting, was a bit of a let down as well.

Fast forward to Jully 11, 2001, my first Pileated Woodpecker sighting. This time around, I saw the bird but it was a flyby only and I was in the backseat of a rental car!! We were driving along the highway in Nova Scotia on a trip to the East Coast. During these trips, I'm constantly watching out the window since you never know when you'll spot a good trip bird. It paid off when I saw a large, black bird flying overhead (at a distance) with the telltale undulating flight of the woodpecker...and that was it. Before I knew it, the bird was out of site, I was yelling at my dad to stop the car, and he gave me an incredulous look that reminded me we were in the middle of a highway (car accidents caused by birding may be more frequent than we know. If a police officer ever asked you why you slammed on the breaks on the road and caused a fender-bender, would you ever actually reply, "There's a very good reason, officer. Didn't you see that Pileated Woodpecker flying overhead?!). Anyway, it was my first sighting of this majestic species and I wouldn't see the bird again until 2007 in the Florida Panhandle.

My best looks of the Pileated Woodpecker were in Apalachicola National Forest. Although I was primarily searching for the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker, in the process, I picked up a group of three Pileated Woodpeckers during the search. Let me tell you, it was a wonderful experience. Every time I heard drumming on a tree, I crazily stalked the sound as if I was desperately looking for a lost pet dog. My parents started to get impatient after about the third knock where I would then race away from them towards the sound. I really needed to see Red-cockaded. But first, I was treated with this trio. It was the first time I saw the species up close (we're talking a few trees away) and actually on a tree rather than a brief flyby. I won't soon forget it. This is truly one of our most beautiful birds. With their red crest, white-and-black patterned face, jet-black body feathers, and mighty bill, they are one heck of a species.

Now comes my fourth sighting, another flyby. This species remains elusive for me in Ontario with sightings separated by years, but in reality, this makes the experience of seeing one all the better. In fact, I don't want to see it again for a long time so that one day I'll look up and gasp when that large, black shape flies overhead. That is, unless one just happens to show up soon at Pelee to add to my May list...but that's a whole other ballgame.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Best Birding Moments

I've been playing around with the idea of getting more posts going on Cerulean Sky by starting a new feature titled Best Birding Moments. Every birder has fond memories of their experiences. It can be something as simple as finally seeing your nemesis bird of 7 years or something more profound like being moved by the beauty of your natural surroundings.

When I think of my best birding moments, a few immediately come to mind: my first Prothonotary Warbler on the Tilden Trail, finding the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers of Apalachicola National Forest in Florida, a rainy day in May when a fallout occurred in Kopegaron Woods and the warblers were so abundant I couldn't keep up with identifying each individual.

In other cases, my best birding moments are simply cherished memories. Something that immediately comes to mind is when I was younger and I could call Marianne to go for a walk to the bridge and we'd talk for hours on end about birds. Or the carefree days in spring when the two of us would lay side by side in a field, watching the sky as male Horned Larks performed their displays above our heads, and try to pick which one we thought the female would select as her mate.

There are other fond moments I look forward to sharing. With my current work schedule and the hustle and bustle of Toronto, it's often easy to forget how truly passionate I am about birding. I hope these posts will spark a reminder of just how important it is for me to get out there more often and appreciate it.