Saturday, March 31, 2007

Banded Trumpeter Swan




We are fortunate, in our area, to have several banded Trumpeter Swans that appear to now live here most of the year. This is a species of the far north, and does not normally live or migrate in the mid-Atlantic United States.

I was lucky to see this beautiful creature come in for a landing at Schoolhouse Pond, in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, this week. It had large yellow tags on the leading edge of each of its huge wings. Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to see the number on the tag, as it quickly folded its wings and coasted silently down the lake ... toward me and my camera!





Two birds have been seen at Schoolhouse and a place called Oxbow Lake in Laurel, Maryland, over the last roughly 18 months. One is #960, the other #962. On our local bird discussion list, MDOsprey, someone posted a note saying the two are siblings, and were hatched in Ontario, Canada.

More information on reporting banded birds can be found on the Website of the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, which has a Bird Banding lab and luckily is also located nearby! You can report swan sightings here.


The only downer here is that I can't count this guy on my Maryland bird list, because it's an introduced species! Although there is some debate about that.... Hmmm...

SUNDAY UPDATE: Phil Davis, one of Maryland's great birders, and secretary of the Maryland-DC records committee, informs us that this is Swan #962.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Bird Flu: Trade vs Migration

Via BirdLife International comes news of a major new study in Ibis, the journal of the respected British Ornithologists Union, arguing that the trade in domesticated birds, not migration of wild birds, is the major factor in the dispersal of the bird flu virus known as H5N1. (We had always hoped this would be the case).

Without going into all the details here, the study argues that several cases of bird flu spread that were blamed on migratory birds, were, on closer inspection, the result of domesticated birds. To quote from the BirdLife summary: "The review finds that migratory birds have been widely and repeatedly blamed for outbreaks that have subsequently been found to originate in the movement of live poultry and products such as poultry meat".

The BirdLife release, and a link to the full study, can be found here.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

It's Lisa's Birthday!




Even this Red-Shouldered Hawk (immature by the looks of it) knew today was the BirdCouple's better half's birthday. He posed, at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington DC, very cooperatively for 10 minutes, so I could take pics of him (or her?) from every angle.... And bring this home to Lisa.


Happy Birthday, princess.


- W

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Fly away, osprey!

I went birding Friday in nearby Caroline County, on Maryland's Eastern Shore. There were Ospreys all over the place, building nests like this one. He didn't seem to happy to see me even though I did my best not to disturb...


Thursday, March 22, 2007

News: Rare Owlet Found

Photos: American Bird Conservancy

March must be the month for owls.



The American Bird Conservancy reports today that ornithologists have seen the extremely rare Long-Whiskered Owl in the wild for the first time in Peru.

Here's more from the ABC press release:

The extremely rare Long-whiskered Owlet (Xenoglaux loweryi), a species that wasn’t discovered until 1976, and until now was only known from a few specimens captured in nets after dark, has been seen in the wild for the first time by researchers monitoring the Area de Conservaci√≥n Privada de Abra Patricia – Alto Nieva, a private conservation area in Northern Peru. The sighting is considered a holy grail of South American ornithology and has not been accomplished in thirty years, despite the efforts of hundreds of birders.


Here's another pic of this crazy-looking guy:







More pics can be found here.

You are what you eat

Photographer: Dave Herr

Mercury, a new threat for Osprey?

Researchers from the University of Montana and the Raptor View Research Institute took blood samples from Osprey nests in areas around Missoula, Montana expecting to find contaminants such as arsenic, cooper and lead left behind from the mines of Butte, home of one of the largest Superfund sites.

What they didn’t expect to find in the Osprey blood samples were “high-very high” levels of mercury along with large doses of selenium. Although the researchers aren’t sure why concentrations of these toxins are so high, they are sure that it spells trouble for other raptors.

Osprey are viewed as an indicator species for larger birds of prey, such as Bald and Golden Eagles.

Along with industrial pollution, raptors also risk lead poisoning caused by digesting fragments of lead ammunition left behind in carcasses after hunting season. Lead poisoning from hunters’ bullets was found to be responsible for the demise of California Condors.

In other bird dining news, BirdLife.org reports the alarming decline in three South Asian Vulture populations. It appears these scavengers have been feasting on a veterinary drug called Diclofenac which was administered to livestock who are later scavenged by the vultures.

Researchers with the Peregrine Fund are offering diclofenac free donkey carcases at a “vulture restaurant” in Pakistan in an attempt to reduce exposure to the veterinary anti-inflammatory drug, but it is nearly impossible to control the vultures feeding off diclofenac laced carcasses elsewhere.

Educating livestock owners to bury or burn carcasses and avoiding use of diclofenac seem to be the answer. Otherwise, “extinction is inevitable in all populations foraging in areas where diclofenac is in veterinary use and treated carcasses become vulture food…””


No word yet if these vultures, like osprey, are an indicator species for smaller scavenging birds such as crows, jays, ravens and magpies.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Monday, March 19, 2007

Speak Chickadee?


Photo: University of Washington/AP

Apparently red-breasted nuthatches do. Two researchers, from the University of Washington and the University of Montana, played recorded "alarm calls" of chickadees, who use different vocalizations to warn of different kinds of predators. They found that not only did the nuthatches respond to the general alarm given off by another species, they exhibited behavior that indicated they were reacting to the specific threat the chickadees were "talking" about. In other words, they had learned chickadee language!

More on this interesting story here.

In another potentially major story for bird-lovers (and -listers), ScienceDaily is reporting that researchers claimed to have found a new bird species in the United States - specifically in Idaho. The purported species, called the South Hills crossbill, is said to be morphologically and vocally distinct from other crossbills that inhabit the same territory, and almost never interbreeds with them.

This is certain to cause huge debate - and more birding trips to Idaho...

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Duckies!!



What could possibly be better than getting up at 6:45am on a Sunday morning and driving an hour to tramp around in a cold, windswept marsh with ice-crusted water threatening to pour over the top of your hipboots and marsh-mud threatening to suck you under?

Nothing - not when the reward is to reach into a nest box just vacated by a startled female Hooded Merganser and gently take one of her eggs, feelng the warmth of incubation in your hand.

BirdCouple spent Sunday morning checking on Wood Duck and Hooded Merganser nest boxes at Huntley Meadows Park in Fairfax County, Virginia, just south of Washington, DC. It's a pocket of green just off the suburban wasteland of US Route 1 and maybe 5 miles south of the atrocity that is the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project. But I digress...







Some serious equipment is needed for this endeavor. Lisa just loved her new hip boots. Very trendy, Princess...


Our first order of business was to replace an old nest box that was falling apart. It took some elbow grease to get the old bolts, which have been sitting there through years of rain, snow and heat, off the sucker. Then we put up the new one. Believe it or not, local racoons have learned to flip the little latches that were used to hook the doors on these boxes. Now the good folks who oversee this project have had to upgrade to twist bolts. I'm sure the racoons will figure that out in another year or two...


This box looks good. That's the point. It's actually kind of a sample box, in easy view for the walkers, joggers, photographers, etc. that visit Huntley Meadows. No birds have nested in this box for years. Glad they told us that after we hiked through muck and bramble to replace it.






OK, on to the real boxes. A 4-person team comprised of Lisa, Warren, our good friend Paul Bacich and his friend Myra checked a half-dozen nesting boxes, some of them literally out in the middle of the marsh... David Gorsline, like Paul a veteran of this project, went solo and checked out the other half of the boxes. You cannot do this without a good walking stick, which saves you when you're about to pitch over face-first into the ice-water-mud-muck:




This nest box was occupied by the afore-mentioned female Hooded Merganser, who was none too happy to see us. But the brave lady stayed on her eggs while we tramped around her domicile, peered in the box, etc. Using a mirror, Lisa got a look at the merganser on her nest - her eyes open in terror. At last - and surely as a last resort - she split, out the front door. Sorry, gal. We had to check out the eggs. Wow! Check it out:





The good news here is that, according to Paul (who is an expert on eggs and nestlings), there were only 5 nesting records of Hooded Mergs in Virginia until this project began at Huntley in the early '90s. The species is mostly known for nesting to the north. The bad news -- or really the sobering truth of nature -- is that only one or two of these little guys and gals will survive weather, disease and predation to adulthood.

(NOTE: No birds or eggs were harmed during our endeavors).


A lot of the other boxes were empty - including one we got to literally by wading through a 1/4 inch of ice, smashing our way through with walking sticks. Clever Warren was at the back of the line. But we did find a second box occupied, actually crammed full of Wood Duck eggs, 15 in all. See if you can tell the difference between these and the merganser eggs:





We tallied up our finds and then headed to Denny's for lots of coffee and a hot breakfast/brunch. Most of the conversation seemed to revolve around birding in WARM places. And then, napping and dreaming..... GOOD LUCK EGGS!

- BirdCouple

Sunday's Nature News, 3/18/2007

Time for our weekly highlight of the top non-birding nature news story of the week. Frankly, we've been too busy birding and doing other stuff to give this our full attention this week.

But Lisa found this story from Science Daily: scientists have determined, through genetic research, that the Clouded Leopard found on the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo is an entirely distinct species of cat, seperate from those found in mainland Southeast Asia.

An entirely new species of cat. That doesn't happen every day. Until next week...

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Green

Green – a lifestyle choice that recognizes that the Earth currently sustains our human impact and as the stewards of our plant, it is our responsibility to protect it for future generations.
.
Being Green means a commitment to using energy efficiently and, when possible, choosing energy generated by clean renewable energy resources such as solar, geothermal or wind.

Being Green means using water was if every drop counted.

Being Green means purchasing and using products that have the lowest possible impact on the environment.

Being Green means reducing the amount of chemicals released into the environment.

Being Green means supporting organizations that are educating, mobilizing and inspiring change that leads to a reduction in the environmental footprints we leave behind.

Being Green means reducing, reusing and recycling waste.

Being Green also means preserving and celebrating the amazingly diverse place we call home: Earth.

May the good Earth be soft under you when you rest upon it, and may it rest easy over you when, at the last, you lay out under it….

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Warren and Lisa
PS – Did you know that you can now easily find (and drink!) Organic Beer?

Friday, March 16, 2007

Kingbird found

Our good friend Paul Bacich was among those who saw the Loggerhead Kingbird this week in Key West, Florida. As reported last week, this is the first solid record of this Caribbean bird in North America. Paul, it should be said, is not a man who easily comes by new life birds in the American Birding Association region. He's got a lot.

Here's an article from The Miami Herald about the find. (It shows a photo of the birders, not the bird. If you want to see a photo of the bird, taken by Carl Goodrich, one of two men who first found the Kingbird, page down a bit).

* Full disclosure: Warren works for McClatchy Newspapers, which owns the Herald!

Congrats, Paul. BirdCouple sez: Any day you see a new bird is a good day.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

IBWO

.... That's birder talk (actually the bird banding code) for the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, a bird that no birder has added to his or her checklist for lo these many decades.

We hesitate to even wade into the debate about whether the Ivory-Billed has been refound or, as has been feared for decades, is in fact extinct. As most of our readers will know, the debate has gotten increasingly heated, with charges, counter-charges, personal and scientific reputations at stake, etc, etc.

Well, here goes. Since it was first announced in Spring '05 that a team led by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology had "refound" the Ivory-Bill in Arkansas, there have been growing challenges to that claim. As A DC Birding Blog points out, there's a lot of coverage of the issue, both current and historical, in Birding magazine, the publication of the American Birding Association.

Now comes a study in the journal BMC Biology that purports to cast further doubt on the sightings. The article analyzes the brief video clip of a bird in flight that the Cornell-led team said was an Ivory-Billed. If we understand this correctly, one of the arguments in favor of it being an Ivory-Billed was the wingbeat frequency in the bird captured on videotape. The article in BMC Biology, by J. Martin Collinson, analyzed that videotape and videotapes of the similar (and common) Pileated Woodpecker during "escape flights." It argues that the bird on the videotape was most likely a Pileated.

Your call. If the IBWO is out there, somone will find it.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Oh, what a little stamp can do...

In the early 1930’s, pioneer conservationists and hunters noted a rapid decrease in the number of wild ducks and geese. The decline in waterfowl was created by two issues: over hunting and the drainage of millions of acres of marsh nesting sites for conversion to farmland.

This concern gave birth to The Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act in 1934, and created the first annual issuance of the Duck Stamp. Under The Duck Stamp Act, hunters of legal waterfowl were required to sign and carry a current Duck stamp along with a state-hunting license.


Migratory Waterfowl Stamps from the Thomas Mayr Collection. Earliest Stamp 1945-46 hunting season (Northern Shovelers)

The first stamp cost $1 and per the Act, the majority of funds were to be used to purchase and maintain waterfowl refuges. In 1938-39, over 1 million Duck Stamps were sold.

In 1949, Congress raised the price of the stamp to $2 to offset rising costs and expand efforts in waterfowl conservation.

The Ross Goose was featured on the Stamp in 1970-71 and appears again in 2006.


In 1958, the price of the stamp increased to $3. The Secretary of the Interior was also given the authority to open up to 40% of some migratory bird refuges to the hunting of game birds.
In March 1972, the cost of the Duck Stamp was raised to $5. The 1971-72 hunting season was the peak of Duck Stamps sales, with more than 2.4 million individual stamps sold.

In 1976, Congress changed the official name to the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp.



For the 1979-80 hunting season, the price was raised to $7.50 and raised again for the 1987-88 season to $10.00. The price increased to $12.50 with the 1989-90 season. And finally, the price was raised to $15.00 with the 1991-92 hunting season.


The Duck Stamp still costs only $15 today.

Since 1934, sales of Duck Stamps have generated more than $670 million and purchased or leased over 5.2 million acres of habitat.
However, with the decrease in hunting, Duck Stamp sales are on the decline.

As birders, we need to do our part to ensure that habitat exists for the birds we enjoy, just as hunters in the past have done.


The Duck Stamp is one of the most efficient conservation donations you can make, as 98 cents of every dollar goes into a fund to purchase or lease wetland.


What has the purchase of this little stamp done in the past?


These are just some of the many refuges that are considered Important Birding Areas (IBAs) with the % of property acquired through the sale of the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp.



Sacramento in California 99.6%
Bosque del Apache in New Mexico 99.4% Can't wait to check out this one!
Parker River in Massachusetts 99.2%
Pea Island in North Carolina 99.2%
Quivira in Kansas 99.0%
Muskatatuk in Indiana 98.8%
Horicon in Wisconsin 98.7%
Monomoy in Massachusetts 97.8%
Bombay Hook in Delaware 95.1% One of our favorite NWRs!
Santa Ana in Texas 94.9% Love this NWR!
DeSoto in Iowa and Nebraska 90.8%
Laguna Atascosa in Texas 89.1%
Ottawa in Ohio 89.0%
Okefenokee in Georgia 88.2%
Anahuac in Texas 87.5%
Edwin B. Forsythe (Brigantine) in New Jersey 85.0%
Blackwater in Maryland 75.8% Very cool NWR!
Chassahowitzka in Florida 73.1%
Chincoteague in Virginia 69.9%



As an added bonus, the purchase of a Duck Stamp also gives you free admission to these and all NWRs.


You can find the Duck Stamp at your local Post Office, online and also through the Georgia Orntholigical Society.

Stamp collecting, Cute Husband! Maybe another hobby?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

More on Long-Eared Owls .. and Spring!? (6)

Photo: Peter Kaestner

Here's a pic of a long-eared owl in Cairo, Egypt, of all places. The bird was found by Kimberly Kaestner and photographed by her husband, birding legend Peter Kaestner. According to this web site, Long-Eared Owls are Holartic, meaning they range across much of Eurasia, as well as North America.

Well, who knew?

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Meanwhile, Lisa and I were taking our evening walk through the neighborhood last night when she heard some geese honking far overhead. These guys weren't just flying about, they were on the move. In the mornings, more and more birds - Song Sparrows, Cardinals, Towhees - seem to be belting out their full song, rather than the standard call. It's been so many months since we heard these songs, which are used to stake out territory and attract mates, that they sound new all over again. I have to stop and say to myself - hey, what's that bird?

If they say it's spring, who are we to disagree?

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Scope Line

“A wise old owl sat on an oak; The more he saw the less he spoke; The less he spoke the more he heard; Why aren't we like that wise old bird?”



Here is what one Long-eared Owl saw through yellow eyes this morning:



A long look at a Long-eared Owl is quite a treat for any birder because (like most owls) they are nocturnal. They roost during the day, usually within the thickest part of the forest. And, when roosting they just happen to look exactly like a tree branch.


Bob Ringler, co-author of The Field List of the Birds of Maryland, discovered the bird a week or so ago and was kind enough to lead a throng of birders directly to the roost this morning.


For some silly reason, Warren and I thought it just might be us and 4 or 5 other birders....


There was at least one scope for every 3 birders


The Long-eared fellow did not disappoint (Hooray!) and showed in one of the known roosting areas, giving everyone great looks of its dark orange face, yellow eyes and crazy long ear tufts.


Plus, we got to catch up with some old birding buds who we had last seen at..... was it the Kelp Gull or was it during the hunt for the Yellow-headed Blackbird?


Funny, it is rarely the location you remember, but rather what bird you were chasing. Although, birding or specific bird chasing usually takes us through or to somewhere lovely that we would have never discovered had it not been for the bird. Today it was through old farmland, over rolling hills to a piece of MD State Land with forest and fields.

Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

I told you he had crazy ear tufts.



Sunday's Nature News 3/11/2007

Photo: A. Herzog/EPFL

Each week, we try to highlight one news item about nature and/or science that does not have to do with birds. There's an amazing amount of interesting discoveries, news, revelations and new questions each week. Some weeks, the choice is obvious. Not so, this week.
But for sheer quirkiness, we like the story that a Franco-Swiss team has created a "Robo-salamander" to investgate how the earliest land animals might have walked.
As with many of our items, this news (reported in Science magazine) comes via the BBC's excellent Science/Nature website.
Until next week...


Saturday, March 10, 2007

Loggerhead Kingbird update


Photo: Carl Goodrich



Here's a picture of the suspected Loggerhead Kingbird, Tyrannus caudifasciatus, that has been seen in Key West, Florida.

This could be the first confirmed record of this bird in North America.

Our good friend Paul Bacich is heading down to Florida to chase it. Go, Paul, Go!

BirdCouple has more modest goals on Sunday. We're off to see a long-eared owl (hopefully!) in Carroll County, Maryland, about an hour northwest of Annapolis.



Friday, March 9, 2007

Spring!? (5)

I saw my first Osprey of the year at Schoolhouse Pond, a small but very productive area in Prince George's County, right outside Washington, DC. My bird list for the pond and trail around it runs to 85 species, including waterfowl, shorebirds, raptors and passerines.

The Osprey, which presumably had recently completed a long journey from South America, was flying over the pond in search of a fish for breakfast.

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On a more national note, the American Birding Association's E-Bulletin reports that a Loggerhead Kingbird has been seen in Key West, Florida. If confirmed, it would be the first solid record of the species in the ABA area... According to ABA, earlier records of the species here are no longer accepted...

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Don't mess with a female cowbird....

Photographer: Dave Herr
Female Cowbird. She looks pretty innocent, huh?


This from Science Daily:

Cowbirds have long been known to lay eggs in the nests of other birds, which then raise the cowbirds' young as their own.

Sneaky, perhaps, but not Scarface.

Now, however, a University of Florida study finds that cowbirds actually ransack and destroy the nests of warblers that don't buy into the ruse and raise their young.
Jeff Hoover, an avian ecologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History, is the lead author on the first study to document experimental evidence of this peeper payback -- retaliation to encourage acceptance of parasitic eggs.

Findings will be published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences March 5.

"It's the female cowbirds who are running the mafia racket at our study site," said Hoover, who has a joint appointment with the Illinois Natural History Survey. "Our study shows many of them returned and ransacked the nest when we removed the parasitic egg."

You can read the rest of the article here

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

News Flash: Lost bird rediscovered

Photo: Philip Round/Wetland Trust

BirdLife International reports that the Large-billed Reed Warbler, which has eluded scientists since it was first discovered in 1867 in India, has been refound - in Thailand.

The warbler is regarded as the world's "least-known bird."

Some good news, for a change....

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Sunday's Nature news 3/4/2007

Before reading this, please check out Lisa's cool "Timberdoodle" post below!

In some ways, the top non-birding nature story of the week should go to the lunar eclipse, seen worldwide, which we blogged about yesterday.

But that's been well covered in blogs and the media. So this week, we will give top honors to the disturbing story that "he" frogs have been changing into "she" frogs as a result of pollutants. While nothing's certain, this may help explain the drastic decline in some frog species worldwide. Stay tuned.

W

Timberdoodle

Photo: Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Normal people are asleep at 4:30 AM. Normal people stay under the covers on Sunday mornings when the temperature reads 28 degrees.

Warren and I met some of the members of our local birding club at 4:30 AM this morning in search of the American Woodcock (AKA Timberdoodle).

The American Woodcock is a particularly cool bird which is rarely seen during the day because they are mostly silent and their plumage blends in perfectly with dead leaves.

In the spring, however, the male American Woodcock puts on quite a show to attract females. Plural female. Woodcocks are polygamous and in the battle to ensure his DNA is spread thick, the male starts the morning or ends the day by repeating a nasal, somewhat mechanical "peent" sound from the ground.

He then performs a spiraling flight display. As the Woodcock ascends, his wing feathers produce a twittering sound. He hovers for a bit and then begins to chirp as he dives toward the ground, landing silently next to a female, where he will once again "peent".

Very stirring! We witnessed it all as the sun rose and the full moon set and a Barred Owl called from across the marsh.


Normal, no. Wonderful, yes.

BTW, the male Woodcock is really into his little sky dance. He gives no parental care to his earthworm eating family and will continue to display long after most of the females have laid eggs.

The females seem to dig the show, though, as they often keep visiting even while they care for their young.

Must be a relaxing entertainment break after a long day of monotonous earthworm hunting.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.” ~ Buddha




A lunar eclipse can only occur at Full Moon, and only if the Moon passes through some portion of the Earth's shadow. Only 35% of lunar eclipses are total and tonight marked one for everyone on plant Earth!
Even with the slight cloud cover in Maryland, it was truly extraordinary.


The Moon was already eclipsing when she rose just after sunset. When Warren and I found her above the treee line and through the clouds, the shadow of Earth as already pulling herself back across the surface of the Moon.

The most wondrous part was that the Moon turned an eerie red, which is caused by dust in our atmosphere acting like a prism and bending the light that hits the Moon.
Sigh. Warren, thank you for lassoing her for me.....

Spring?! (4)

MUST be spring. It's almost 60 degrees F out there. Just saw a butterfly -- species unknown -- fly through our front garden.

Tomorrow, BirdCouple heads out early (4am!!!) to try to see the reclusive American Woodcock. Each spring, at dawn and dusk, male Woodcocks do an amazing courtship display, flying in spirals as they call a very nasal "Peent!" But you have to get up early to see it. Did I mention early?

Doing a bit of research for this post, I learned that the American Woodcock is basically a shorebird that evolved to live in the forest, where it searches for worms and stuff with its long bill.

The only time I've ever seen a Woodcock is in downtown Washington, D.C., where, sadly, it crashed into an office building window (probably saw the reflection of sky) and I followed it to where it huddled in the doorway of a nearby building...

- Warren


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A D.C. Birding Blog has an interesting post about two recent articles in Birder's Digest magazine that talk about bird blogs. Check it out.

Friday, March 2, 2007

A Great Birder & Lister (and a diplomat and friend)

Last year, I got to combine my profession (journalism) with my passion (birding) when I did a profile of U.S. diplomat Peter Kaestner, one of the world's most intrepid birders (and now a good friend of Lisa and mine). For those who may not have seen it, I'm reposting the article from last April.... Peter's life list is now in excess of 8,070..
- Warren





U.S. diplomat Peter Kaestner would like to be the world's No. 1 birder

By Warren P. Strobel
Knight Ridder Newspapers

HELWAN, Egypt - To get a glimpse of how intense Peter Kaestner is about birds, tag along with him early one morning to a narrow strip of land between the Nile River and a dusty highway in a southern suburb of Cairo.

Kaestner won't see any birds today that he hasn't seen before. That's not surprising: He's identified 8,056 species around the globe, including one he discovered. His lifetime of birding began when he was 5 and will end, he says, when he's lying on his deathbed listening for peeps and twitters outside the window.

There are nearly 10,000 recognized species of birds on the planet, and only two living people have seen more of them than Kaestner (pronounced "case-ner") has. His numbers and knowledge put him on Olympian heights in the competitive world of international birding.

"I'd like to be the No. 1 birder in the world," he says.

He seems to tweak birds out of the landscape with eyes, ears and an occasional, insistent "psssh!" that causes feathered creatures to emerge from their hiding places to investigate.

A bluethroat, a small robin-like bird that sports a bright blue bib, peeps out from the top of a bunch of reeds. Kaestner instantly recalls where he saw his first one: It was in Bharatpur, India, in December 1967.

A tiny, barely distinguishable dot with a buzzy call zooms rapidly overhead. Kaestner, who somehow seems relaxed and focused at the same time, barely turns to look. "Zitting cisticola," he says. It's a type of warbler.

To many people, the term "birdwatcher" (practitioners prefer "birder") conjures up images of the socially dysfunctional, or of rumpled, late-middle-aged men and women, festooned with odd equipment, peering up at the tops of trees.

The reality is often quite different.

Kaestner, 52, is a senior U.S. diplomat who's now the consul general in Cairo. It's a career he's succeeded at and enjoys, but one that he also chose to bring him closer to more birds. While his colleagues angle for posts in London or Paris, he sought out assignments in places such as Colombia, India and Namibia.

"Birding pushes so many of my hot buttons," he says. He ticks them off: the competition, the creatures' beauty, being outdoors, the joy of sharing knowledge with others.

Kaestner has survived shipwrecks in the Amazon and many other dangers that come with traveling in remote areas.

In mid-March, he'd just returned from Yemen.

On the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean, he said, he persuaded a reluctant boat captain to take his small, coastal craft several miles offshore in search of the jouanin's petrel, a pelagic bird - one that visits land only to breed.

The boat rolled dangerously, battered by wind and spray. Then, three miles offshore and wondering whether he'd make it back, Kaestner spotted what he'd come for, out on the horizon. "It was a great feeling," he said.

Kaestner saw 18 new species, or "lifers," on the Yemen trip, and one more back in Egypt this month.

There's a common root to Kaestner's drive and love of birds: family.

He was one of 10 children, seven of them boys, growing up in Baltimore with a father who demanded excellence. Bud Kaestner was a three-time All-American in lacrosse and is in the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame. "That's where we all got our focus on doing things well," said eldest sibling Hank, who's also in the Lacrosse Hall of Fame.


Hank is also an accomplished birder (life list: 6,762), whose business trips buying spices for McCormick & Co. had allowed him to pursue his hobby in exotic locales.

It was Hank, at age 10, who began the fascination. In Mexico City, visiting his maternal grandparents, he saw a stunningly bright red bird. Eager to know its name, he went into a bookstore the next day. In one of those coincidences that seem like fate, he found a guide with the bird's picture on the cover. It was a vermillion flycatcher.

"I taught him all that he knows," Hank says teasingly of his younger brother. He credits Peter's success to intensive preparation before each trip.

Most big-league birders go on organized guided tours. Kaestner does most of his birding alone. He prepares meticulously before each expedition. He creates lists of birds he hopes to see, knows their habitats and migratory patterns, and brings audiotapes of their calls to attract them.

If he did it any other way, Kaestner probably wouldn't have discovered a new species in October 1989.

He was 50 miles outside of Bogota, Colombia, returning from a consular visit to a group of U.S. missionaries, and saw a promising spot to do some birding.

He "heard a bird I didn't recognize," tape-recorded its song, played it back and eventually got a glimpse of the bird. "I knew instantly that it was nothing that had ever been seen in Colombia before."

Or anywhere else. After passing proper scientific review, the bird, a bit less than 7 inches long with a dull white throat, a streaked breast and an appetite for insects, was named the cundinamarca antpitta. Latin name, Grailaria kaestneri. (A group of birders trying to spot the creature in 1998 were kidnapped by anti-government guerrillas and held for 33 days.)

"It doesn't get much better than finding a new species," Kaestner says.

Is all this, well, normal?

Ask Kaestner, who has a biology degree, whether he considers himself an ornithologist or a birder and he instantly replies: "I consider myself a diplomat. That's what I get paid for."

"Peter is the kind of guy every American should hope is in our Foreign Service," U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Frank Ricciardone says in an e-mail. He calls Kaestner "dedicated, savvy, personable, service-oriented, with rock-solid integrity, a wide-ranging mind, and a ... personal, passionate and highly accomplished intellectual pursuit."

Kaestner says he's compressed his birding since he and his wife, Kimberly, had two daughters, Kate, almost 16, and Laurel, 14.

He does the birding equivalent of precision bombing. In mid-February, he drove from Cairo to southern Israel and back, 900 miles, in 38 hours. And got four of the five birds he'd targeted.

While there are nearly 2,000 birds left for him to find, there's an unsettling cloud on the horizon for the birding world: bird flu.

Research now suggests that the H5N1 strain of bird flu virus, at first thought to be transmitted solely by domesticated fowl, may be spread by wild migratory birds.

Kaestner, at first a skeptic, says: "I'm on the fence now."

He's just a little more careful. In Israel, he saw a common quail that was acting strangely, as if sick, and he didn't go too near.

He won't stop birding, though: "I will be lying on my deathbed, if I still have my hearing, listening for birds at the window, literally."

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Hello? This is the hazardous waste in your cell phone calling.

An estimated 100 million people in the U.S. own a cell phone. Industry research shows that most people upgrade cells phones every two years.

What do you do with that little plastic box full of electronic gizmos once you upgrade? Most of us toss it in a drawer for future disposal or dump it in the trash where it ends up in a landfill.

Cute husband uses the drawer method, while I used to throw directly in the garbage. One of the subtle, yet wonderful differences between us.
I digress.


The problem is that toxic chemicals (PBTs) such as arsenic, lead, nickel and zinc along with other hazardous substances make up the internal gadgetry of cell phones. These chemicals and substances can eventually leach into the soil or drift in the wind and end up in our water supply.

Not to mention that cell phones, PDAs and computer are not biodegradable and add tons of waste to landfills.

The National Wildlife Federation has a solution. You can send NWF and their partner, Access Recycling, obsolete cell phones, toner cartridges, laptops and other computer accessories. They will then remanufacture, refurbish, recycle or reuse your old unwanted toys.
(Isn’t “re” the best prefix?)


If you have a couple of cell phones to dispose of, email NWF at nwf@accessrecycling.com and they will send you a postage paid bag to mail in your phone. See the NWF website for recycling larger quantities or other equipment.

In addition to reducing the landfill hazards, recycling the metals used in cell phones saves the energy of mining new metallic ores and also the impact of mining on the environment.

You can also check out Earth 911 to find local schools and charities who can reuse your equipment if it is in good working order.

Once you have sent your equipment for recycle or reuse, close the loop. Buy something made from recycled materials.

Very responsible, not to mention very good for your karma!