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Posts Tagged ‘birds’

Photo: Embassy of Switzerland in the United States of America.
The Swiss embassy has created a bird sanctuary in the heart of Washington, DC.

When a Swiss bird lover became the ambassador to the United States, he was horrified that his embassy in Washington was maintained like a golf course. He decided to create grounds more welcoming to birds — and did a big favor to everyone who cares about biodiversity.

Molly McCluskey reports at Audubon magazine, “When Jacques Pitteloud arrived at his new home and office in the fall of 2019, he was dismayed to discover the state of the property. As Switzerland’s new ambassador to the United States, he had a piece of prime real estate in northwest Washington, D.C.,— a historic six-acre stretch of land that once was a farm called Single Oak. Now it hosted the country’s sleek, modern residence, and an embassy under renovation. But the grounds looked and were treated like a golf course.

‘I felt a tremendous amount of guilt and shame when I took over the residence,’ he says. ‘Golf courses are nice to look at, but they’re ecological disasters. … [Now] we have so many fireflies at night, it’s like fireworks.’

Normal diplomatic life was soon upended by the pandemic, and since then he’s been on a mission to rewild the expansive grounds, aiming to create a biodiversity reserve marked by the native plants of the region. He forbid the use of pesticides and allowed the lawn to grow out in spotty patches. Using resources such as Audubon’s native plants database and guide to birds, he worked closely with a local landscape designer, Aldertree Garden, that specializes in native plants. They uprooted all the non-native bushes and trees, such as ornamental burning bush and non-productive grass, and replaced them with meadows, bushes, and native trees, including white oak, scarlet oak, black oak, and others.

“Wildlife was also a part of his rewilding vision. Local beekeepers now manage the embassy’s colony of 50 hives, and he built a home for…

” ‘Within a short time, the results are amazing,’ Pitteloud tells me as he walks through the grounds, bending down from time to time to check on the plants or to take a closer view at the frogs in a newly installed pond. ‘We have so many more birds, butterflies. It’s incredible how quickly they returned. We have so many fireflies at night, it’s like fireworks.’ …

“Soon after his arrival in Washington, with the pandemic in full swing and diplomatic life thrown into disarray, Pitteloud immersed himself in local birding clubs and outings as a way of getting to know his new community and environment. His snapshot of an unusual Painted Bunting sighting on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park — a bird more typically found in Florida than in southern Maryland — was featured in the Washington Post.

“Pitteloud’s efforts to rewild the embassy and residence are a part of a growing movement of local embassies adding more natural elements to their buildings and grounds. The Finnish embassy prides itself on being the first U.S. Green Building Council LEED-certified embassy in Washington. The Irish ambassador’s residence has a low-impact, xeriscaped garden. The Tunisian embassy and residence both have wild, untamed pollinator gardens, in addition to vegetable gardens. The Canadian residence on Pennsylvania Avenue has beehives, and a community-engaged program around beekeeping.

“But the Swiss are perhaps going the furthest on the land they tend. Pitteloud says the efforts are labor- and cost-intensive, but he sees no other option. And staff in D.C. and back in Switzerland at the foreign ministry, he says, have largely applauded the work — especially as the effects of climate change, and the dramatic loss of birdlife around the world, gain more attention. Around the time he took the helm at the embassy, in September 2019, a team of scientists concluded that North America has lost some 3 billion breeding adult birds since 1970, with every biome impacted.

“The news hit Pitteloud hard: ‘We’re five minutes to midnight on biodiversity loss,’ he says. ‘In 30 years, we’ll have empty skies, with no songbirds left. We’ll have to carry bees around because we won’t be able to pollinate our agriculture.’

“Though the Swiss embassy in Washington is only one property, Pitteloud hopes that by fostering favorable habitats for wildlife and inviting in beekeepers and other neighborhood groups, he is engaging in a form of ‘environmental diplomacy.’ Essentially his goal is to set an example for others, whether local neighbors or other embassies (or maybe even the White House, a property whose garden is notably lacking in native plants).

“Because ambassadors and their staff often cycle in and out of their posts every few years, Pitteloud may never see the full effects of the landscaping changes come to fruition, but he hopes the legacy lasts.”

More at Audubon, here.

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Photo: Alia Smith.
Playing the Wingspan board game.

Are you a board-game enthusiast? I am not usually, but as Hurricane Henri sweeps over Rhode Island and activities are shut down like it’s the pandemic all over again, I’m thinking we may need more board games in the house. And the one in today’s story looks like a winner.

Dan Kois writes at Slate about Wingspan’s recent phenomenal success.

“In the winter of 2005, Elizabeth Hargrave, a health policy analyst, took a ski trip with a group of friends from her church. The problem was, she said, she grew up in Florida, ‘and I don’t actually enjoy skiing, or any winter sports.’ One of the friends had brought a selection of board games. … Hargrave, who played bridge but hadn’t really played board games since she was a kid, was ‘totally hooked,’ she said. …

“After she returned home to the D.C. suburbs, she continued playing games. She loved the math of them, the way they became puzzles. … In her newfound fandom, Hargrave was like thousands of adults who’ve rediscovered the joy of board games, especially as a new kind of game took over the market.

“In ‘Eurostyle’ games, players complete complex, evolving challenges more involved than simply traveling around a game board answering trivia questions or paying rent. And in Eurostyle games, players are never eliminated. …

“[But Hargrave] and her friends found themselves annoyed that all the games seemed to revolve around medieval villages, or trains, or trading economies in vaguely Mediterranean locales. ‘At one point we placed a moratorium on games about castles,’ she said. This led her to a question: Why weren’t there games about subjects she actually found compelling? Maybe she would design one, she thought. And that led to another question: What did she like enough to want to make a whole game out of it?

“That one was easy. Birds.

“My family discovered Wingspan,” the Slate reporter continues, “with its beautiful, hand-painted cards and gentle, strategic gameplay, last year, and soon we were playing it every weekend. Wingspan has transformed the way I think about games, about competition, and even about art. ,,,

“When it was released in 2019, it was an instant hit, and that was before everyone found themselves stuck inside during the pandemic. In 2020, as the pandemic drove Americans both into their homes to stare at their families and out into the woods to stare at birds, Wingspan blew up, outselling every other game its publisher makes combined. That company, Stonemaier Games, has now sold 1.3 million copies of the game and its expansions, plus another 125,000 digital editions on Steam, Nintendo Switch, Xbox, and iOS. …

“Wngspan is what’s known among serious gamers as an ‘engine-building game,’ which means that as the game goes on, the combination of birds you play becomes more and more efficient at generating points each turn, like an engine running faster and faster. Your cuckoo lays eggs, and the eggs not only give you points but make it possible to play more birds, which also give you more points but have their own powers that generate points in other ways. I prefer thinking about the mechanism of Wingspan not as an engine I am building, but as an ecosystem I am fostering.

If I’ve strategized well, the birds in my ecosystem will be knitted together into a web of complex, mutually beneficial relationships. …

“It’s those interconnections that Hargrave began mapping out in a ginormous spreadsheet once she decided she really did want to design a board game. For four years, she researched birds, brainstormed play ideas, and — most crucially — tested the game, over and over, every week for years, with a group of friends. …

“During the years she was playtesting Wingspan, she worked as a health policy consultant, often running focus groups, and her experience with analyzing data and interpreting consumer response was also crucial to Wingspan’s development. The numbers work in Wingspan. What seems at the beginning like a set of coincidences or accidents reveal themselves by game’s end as a cleverly designed system that ensures everyone finds a way to score points.

“When Hargrave felt she had a solid game, she cold-emailed every publisher that seemed like it might be amenable to a game about birds by a first-time designer. Most ignored her or turned her down, but in 2016 she did land a few meetings at Gen Con, an Indianapolis board game convention. One executive, Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier Games, listened to her pitch for Bring in the Birds, as it was called, responded with a list of suggested changes, and told her that if she revised the game and came back to him, he’d consider it. That meant another half-year of unpaid work before Stegmaier accepted her revision and agreed to manufacture the game. Hargrave, as a first-time designer, received no advance, so until the game sold, she wouldn’t see a dime.

“But boy, did the game sell. …

“I think that the game’s sly cooperative nature — the way Hargrave’s design gently pushes you not to beat your neighbor but to succeed with her, together — goes hand in hand with its conservationist spirit. Of course passionate birders become Wingspan players, and Hargrave has heard from many nonbirder Wingspan fans who are now investing in bird feeders and signing up for eBird accounts (us, for example). But there’s also something inspiring about engaging with the outdoors in this constructive way, at a time when most human impact upon the environment seems so dire. Nature is not a zero-sum game, and neither is the human effort to preserve it: The more people you invite to the table to work together, the more everyone achieves. “

More at Slate, here.

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Photo: Hog Island Audubon
Rosalie Haizlett at work during her artist residency at an Audubon camp in Maine.

January is a time of year that gardeners turn to seed catalogs and travelers start to make plans. This year many travelers are remaking plans for adventures they had to cancel last year. Maybe it will be safer now. Who knows?

There’s a kind of vacation I particularly like reading about — artists’ retreats — and this one in Maine is intriguing because it combines a love of birds with an artistic pursuit. The three 2020 artists, whose residencies were canceled, have been invited back for 2021, and I desperately hope for all of us — especially those of us who haven’t felt able to take risks this year — that the world will be safe enough for a bit more fun and satisfaction by then.

Hog Island Audubon alumna Lindsay McNamara writes, “Nestled along the Gulf of Maine and Muscongus Bay, lies a forested island in a small Maine fishing town. Hog Island is rich in history and has also been instrumental in the environmental education movement in the US. Since 1936, residential sessions at Hog Island Audubon Camp have been led by some of the most respected naturalists and environmental educators in the nation, inspiring scores of scientists, school and university educators, and conservation leaders.

“In 2014, Audubon added artists to that list. The Artist-in-Residence (AiR) program brings artists across disciplines and subject matter from all over the world to enjoy hands-on nature discovery in a creative, rustic retreat setting.

“Over the last six years, nearly 20 artists have joined the Hog Island family. I had the honor of asking these talented folks about their experiences on the Island.

“As bird nerds, it is no surprise that our conversations began with talks of favorite birds on and off the Island. Tom Schaefer, author of Nature’s People: The Hog Island Story from Mabel Loomis Todd to Audubon and 2014 AiR, … explained, ‘As far as birds are concerned, it’s hard not to be impressed with the Atlantic Puffins, but I’d have to say the Osprey I scared up while hiking the perimeter of the Island was my favorite. In 1981, Osprey were still making their comeback. Pretty exciting bird for my life list.’

“Other favorite Hog Island birds included … Roseate and Arctic Terns, Winter Wren, Bald Eagle, Hermit Thrush, Black-throated Green Warbler, and Common Loon. 2019 AiR and watercolor painter Rosalie Haizlett explained, ‘My favorite bird on the island was the Common Loon, because I could hear its wails so clearly from my little cabin in the evenings. The sound was simultaneously melancholy and calming and while at first it gave me an eerie feeling, I soon grew accustomed to it and enjoyed it.’

“Chats quickly shifted to favorite birds in general. … 2017 AiR and painter Michael Boardman joked, “As an artist I should say ‘the bird that sits still long enough to sketch,’ but it’s really a Snowy Owl.’

“2015 AiR, program coordinator, and printmaker, Sherrie York said … ‘As an artist, I am particularly drawn to birds with a strong graphic character. I often joke that Harlequin Ducks, with their bold and bright plumage, must have evolved just to inspire printmakers. …

“ ‘As a group, the birds that inspire me most are those that have some sort of direct relationship with water: seabirds, shorebirds, and waterfowl. I grew up and lived most of my life in Colorado, in the arid interior of the United States. A couple of years ago I moved to Maine, and now live about 20 minutes from Hog Island. Both places are strongly tied to water but the relationships are very different. Whatever our human relationships to water might be, water birds can connect us and help us understand the challenges and needs of our particular region.’ …

“Many artists spoke of an elevated sense of place. Mr. Schaefer elaborated, ‘Hog Island is three-hundred-plus undeveloped acres in one of the most beautiful summer destinations on the planet. Mecca for hikers, climbers, birders, sailors, artists — vacationers of many different feathers.’ …

“ ‘That cabin, that island, and the world that envelops it gave me the room that I needed to think about some of the themes I’m obsessed with: birds, how we should think about them, what they mean in our lives, and what we mean in theirs,’ explained 2018 AiR and author Mark Hedden.

“2015 AiR and playwright Rebecca Gilman shared, ‘One night, I was startled awake by the weirdest, loudest sound. … It took me a while, but I eventually figured out there were seals out in the water, barking. I grew up in Alabama and I live in Wisconsin, so that was a first for me.’

“Ms. Haizlett explained … ‘I would often see students of all ages sketching in the woods or on the beach, and it made my heart happy to see people connecting with the natural world through the arts, which is how I also learn most effectively. I was invited to teach several nature illustration workshops while I was there, and those art and nature parties where some of my favorite experiences at Hog Island.’

“Oil painter and 2019 AiR Ralph Grady James shared his fondest memories: ‘First, I loved hearing the loons calling on the water while sitting on the cabin porch as the sun set. I also loved seeing the lobster boats tending their traps. It is not often in these days having that much peace and quiet away from others especially surrounded by the beauty in that place.’ …

“Paper artist and 2018 AiR Ingrid Erickson shared, ‘One of my fondest memories of Hog Island is of sitting on the porch in the evening, as the sky turned inky and filled with stars after my last solo walk on the beach. The night sky over Hog Island on a clear night is probably the least light polluted view of the night sky I’ve had in some time.’ …

” ‘My time on Hog Island,’ [Ms. Haizlett concluded], ‘was a beautiful confirmation to me that I’m on the right path.’ ”

More at Hog Island Audubon, here.

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Blind Photographer

Photo: Liz Bossoli
Pileated Woodpecker in Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Florida.

A disability may make a person think about things in new and interesting ways. Remember the blind architect whose other senses helped him carve out an inspiring career? (Blog post here.)

In a first-person account at Audubon magazine, Liz Bossoli, describes her life as a mostly blind photographer of birds.

She writes, “As far back as I can remember, I’ve been enthralled with animals. Wherever I went, it wouldn’t take long for me to orient to the nearest one. By age eight, I could identify upward of 100 dog breeds. Yet when it came to birds, my list wouldn’t have gone far beyond Northern Cardinals and Blue Jays. I often heard my grandfather warmly refer to ‘chickadees,’ but this species only existed vaguely in my mind’s eye as a small, probably cute bird. Until recently, I never actually saw a Black-capped Chickadee in a way that I could appreciate. When my grandparents marveled over a bird at their feeder, I only experienced their joy vicariously.  

“I was born with a congenital condition called Septo-Optic Dysplasia, and as a result, I’m almost totally blind in my left eye and legally blind in my right. Blindness is not a binary condition, but rather affects individuals across a broad spectrum. … I’m among the majority of blind individuals who have some usable vision, and I happen to fall on the end of the spectrum with the greatest degree of functional eyesight.

“I’ve been known to describe myself as having ‘pretty good vision for being legally blind.’ It’s my light-hearted spin on living in an awkward space where I don’t need a lot of adaptive tools or assistance from others, until I do. That also makes it easy for people to forget I can’t see well — including myself. Day to day, I’m not often cognizant of the degree to which my vision impairment affects me. Still, one of the most poignant reminders occurs when I can’t perceive my environment in the same manner as those around me. In my yard, I’m consistently awestruck when a friend immediately points out birds I don’t know are there.

“For nearly as long as I’ve been fascinated by animals, I’ve used art to express that fondness; first, through drawing and then, photography. I purchased my first DSLR camera in 2009, so I could create images that would do justice to the relationships I had with my dogs and other animals in my life. 

“I spent the better part of the last decade honing my skills as a dog portrait photographer, but a 2016 visit to Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples, Florida, reignited a passion for connecting with the natural world. That trip to Corkscrew gifted me with up-close encounters with wild birds, unlike anything I had experienced. Equipped with an entry-level zoom lens, my camera gave me just enough visual reach to see the Red-shouldered Hawk that landed on a low branch right above my head, and to engage in a game of peek-a-boo with an active Pileated Woodpecker. …

“Back home, in Connecticut, my husband and I continue to adapt our small suburban property to create a more hospitable environment for native birds. This year, while spending most of my time in my own yard, I appreciate their presence more than ever.  I’ve found myself fully engrossed in the art of bird photography, driven by desire to understand the wildlife around me. My photo of a Gray Catbird even made it into the final gallery of reader submissions for Audubon’s Bird From Home project. …

“I employ three different strategies for photographing birds in my yard. The first two are intentional: I either actively seek out birds that I hear in nearby trees, or I plant myself in a position from which I know I’ll be able to observe birds. The third strategy usually looks something like me being surprised by an unexpected bird encounter, frantically running into my house to get my camera, and returning in hopes I didn’t miss everything.

“Bird feeders, nest boxes, and a birdbath are often just as integral to my process as the camera itself. They take the guesswork out of finding birds to photograph. I admit that photographing birds in these contexts lacks the thrill of successfully locating a bird on a branch, but that doesn’t mean it’s a passive process. For my purposes, any amount of predictability is a vote in favor of creativity.

“And when I do hear the sound of uncharacteristic rustling in the trees or a bird call close nearby, I hope for the best. I rely on the goodwill of birds who are generous enough to remain in the same location for minutes at a time, as I visually scan the area with my camera. Through the viewfinder, I trace the outline of branches in order of my best guess that the sound came from that specific area. I repeat this with other branches until I have to refocus and scan the same area at a different distance from me. In the course of this process, I’m likely pointing my camera directly at the bird I’m seeking several times without realizing it. I estimate that at least 90 percent of my attempts at photographing birds under these circumstances are fruitless, but the occasional success makes the time investment worthwhile.” More.

There’s something wonderful about the unexpected in any art. Take the happy accidents of Raku pottery, for example. I don’t imagine anyone can control precisely how Raku turns out. There may also be good surprises in domestic arts like cooking and knitting, not just horrible glitches. And what about the scientific arts? Scientifically minded readers should check out the eight beneficial mistakes described here.

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Photo: JN Phillips
A white-crowned sparrow sits near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. “During lockdown,” writes the Christian Science Monitor, “traffic in the city dwindled to levels not seen since the 1950s.” The lack of noise caused surprising changes.

One thing that’s been interesting in the pandemic has been reading about various wild animals that apparently feel safer exploring suburbs and streets now that they are quieter. Today’s story is about birds that have stopped feeling the need to shout.

Eva Botkin-Kowacki reports at the Christian Science Monitor, “When the pandemic began, Elizabeth Derryberry wasn’t thinking about her research. Her focus was on the basics: how to teach remotely as an associate professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; how to manage the lockdown with her young family; and how to keep everyone safe and healthy.

“But as she scrolled through social media one evening, she saw a picture of a coyote at the empty Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. She recalls thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, there really are no cars.’ And as she stared at that image, Dr. Derryberry thought about how quiet it must be nearby without the normal hubbub of traffic – and about the birds she had been studying there.

“Along with her colleague David Luther of George Mason University, Dr. Derryberry had been recording the songs of white-crowned sparrows in both the urban setting of San Francisco and the more rural Marin County to study how the birds responded to the hum of human-made noise. They’d found that the city sparrows sang more loudly, but with a much more limited range, than their country cousins. And the shutdown presented an unprecedented opportunity for the researchers to see if those urban birds changed their tune.

“Indeed, the urban sparrows took full advantage of the relative silence. When the research team recorded birdsongs near the Golden Gate Bridge in April and May of this year, they sounded notably different – and of higher quality – from those recorded during previous springs. Their findings were published [in September] in the journal Science. …

“As people stayed home this spring, many noticed more wildlife around them. Some pondered whether there were actually more birds, for example, or if the quieter cities just made their songs (and presence) more obvious. …

“ ‘When we’re going about our daily lives, we get used to the patterns of the animals that we see,’ says Allison Injaian, a lecturer in the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia, who was not involved in the study. ‘It’s pretty hard to know what we’re missing out on if that never is visible or audible.

“ ‘But when this really unprecedented shift in human behavior occurred,’ she says, it presented ‘a great opportunity for all of us to realize the impact that we ourselves are having on the wildlife around us.’ …

“For the birds themselves, their songs encode information crucial to their existence. White-crowned sparrows, for example, listen to each other’s songs to pick potential mates in spring, and as a way to assess the fitness of another male from afar when deciding whether or not to fight him to try to take over his territory.

“But in cities, they’re typically making a trade-off between the quality of their songs and simply being heard, says Ken Otter, a biologist at University of Northern British Columbia who was not involved in the new study. …

“Before the shutdown, Dr. Derryberry and Dr. Luther found that birds in San Francisco were competing with nearly three times as much noise as those in Marin County. But when the pandemic closed everything down, there was no difference in noise levels. They attribute that to less traffic, as the amount of cars passing through had reverted to levels not seen since the 1950s.

“As a result, birdsongs could travel much farther. The researchers found that the birds sang more softly because they didn’t have to be louder than the anthropogenic noise, and even still, their songs could travel twice the distance as before the shutdown. 

“The bandwidth of the trill at the end of the sparrows’ song is also key to communicating physical fitness to potential mates or rivals. Researchers found previously that the urban birds limit their trills to higher frequencies so they don’t have to compete with the low hum of traffic. But during the shutdown, the team found that the city sparrows utilized their full range – and when they compared the 2020 songs to historical recordings in the area, they found that some of the sparrows were singing in ways not heard in the city since the 1970s. 

“Whether this has a long-term effect remains to be seen, says Dr. Derryberry. But she plans to study the San Francisco sparrows’ sounds during the breeding season once again next year. ‘I’m really excited to see what happened with the nestlings that learned their songs this year,’ she says. …

Birds don’t just adjust their songs’ volume and range. Research has found that some urban birds will adjust the time of day that they sing to avoid rush hour. …

“Studies like this one, Dr. Otter says, can also help give us direction. ‘It’s really important for understanding how we can move forward with planning,’ he says, ‘so that we can create spaces that not only attract the birds, but allow them to be successful.’ ”

More here.

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Photo: BGR

My son-in-law is no fan of grey squirrels. The squirrels in Sweden are apparently more polite. Too many times when the children were small and sleeping outside for some fresh air, an aggressive grey squirrel would crash around on the grape arbor above and shower leaves and twigs onto the stroller, ending the nap.

More recently, great pains have been taken to prevent Mr. Squirrel from getting into the bird feeder. And it’s been a revelation how many companies, observing a huge market demand, are trying to produce squirrel-proof bird stations.

But squirrels are interesting if you’re in the right frame of mind. Consider how clever they are in absorbing warnings from birds when there’s danger.

Mike Wehner writes at BGR, “A new study highlights just how important it can be for certain animals to glean information from the communication of entirely different species. The research, published in PLOS One, reveals that squirrels can sense danger simply by spying on some unwitting feathered friends.

“Squirrels, it turns out, are very good at listening to bird chatter, and have a knack for translating those chirps and tweets (or lack thereof) to sense when predators are nearby.

“For the study, researchers hunted down grey squirrels and tested their reactions to certain bird noises. Using the threatening call of a hawk to strike fear in the furry mammals, the scientists recorded the changes in their behavior when the cheerful calls of songbirds were played at various intervals. …

“The researchers write, ‘Squirrels responded to the hawk call playbacks by significantly increasing the proportion of time they spent engaged in vigilance behaviors and the number of times they looked up during otherwise non-vigilance behaviors, indicating that they perceived elevated predation threat prior to the playbacks of chatter or ambient noise.’

“The squirrels, sensing immediate danger from above, were careful in their movements and did their best to avoid making themselves an easy meal. When silence followed the recorded hawk calls, the squirrels remained in that state, but when friendly bird chatter returned the squirrels took it as a sign that the skies were clear of threats.

“ ‘We knew that squirrels eavesdropped on the alarm calls of some bird species, but we were excited to find that they also eavesdrop on non-alarm sounds that indicate the birds feel relatively safe,’ the scientists say. ‘Perhaps in some circumstances, cues of safety could be as important as cues of danger.’ ”

Read more.

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Photo: Calvin Nicholls
Wilson’s Bird of Paradise rendered in paper.

Some people seem to make a beeline straight from childhood to the work that will define them. People like Mozart, for example. Others have a long, circuitous route to greatness. Malvolio weighs in on the puzzle in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

Pat Leonard writes at Living Bird that Calvin Nicholls came to his amazingly great art a bit by accident.

“The daily commute to his attic studio is short and steep. The road to success for Canadian artist Calvin Nicholls has been much longer. He’s spent the last 30 years perfecting an unusual art form that is all about light, shadow, shape—and illusion. Nicholls is a paper sculptor who creates fantastically detailed birds and other animals that seem to leap, lean, or flutter straight out of their frames. His career evolved from drawing, model-making, sculpting, photography, and periodic doses of serendipity.

“ ‘It’s so clear in my mind—it was 1983,’ says Nicholls. ‘I had my own graphic design studio in Toronto. I met a fellow who was manipulating paper to produce areas of highlight and shadow to create the feeling of depth in two dimensions. We worked on a restaurant menu concept together and I could see the potential in this technique. I got playing with paper sculpture myself and it was just so much fun.’

“At first, Nicholls created his sculptures as a method for creating his final product, a photograph that could surprise viewers by seeming three dimensional. The technique turned out to be a hit when Nicholls introduced it to some of his clients. He showed photographic prints of his work in an art show in Ontario in 1990, but he also wound up selling sculptures of a Snowy Owl and Mallard as well.

“ ‘I was focused on the prints and trying to make two dimensions look like three,’ Nicholls says. ‘Then clients would say, so where’s the artwork? And I thought, yikes—I never even thought about displaying the artwork! I still marvel that I didn’t know then that the original artwork could be as interesting as the illusion created in the prints with sophisticated studio lighting.’

“Switching focus to the original artwork meant reducing the depth of his sculptures so they could be framed and so the jumble of foam core supports and toothpicks underneath didn’t show when the piece was viewed from an angle. It took a lot of time and experimentation. But the end result is an uncanny illusion of depth from layers of paper that are only about an inch thick. …

‘What makes the sculptures work is thinking about anatomy and how [feathers] flow a certain way on the musculoskeletal structure,’ says Nicholls. ‘I have to get a sense of the skeleton and the muscles and what they do in certain gestures.’ ”

Read more and see the great pictures at Living Bird, here.

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Photos: Greg Davis/OPB
Oregon State University doctoral student Hankyu Kim sets up a decoy of a hermit warbler. Songbird populations have been declining, and rising temperatures are one reason.

Nearly all birds are “canaries in the coal mine,” in the sense that when they’re in trouble from habitat destruction, rising temperatures, pollutants, and so on, they’re heralding trouble for all species, including the human one. For that reason, among many others, I love to hear of efforts to protect even one kind of bird.

Consider this story by reporter Jes Burns at National Public Radio (NPR).

“Each spring, songbirds migrate thousands of miles to breed in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains. Deep in a forest, Oregon State University researcher Hankyu Kim feels he has gotten inside the head of one species, the hermit warbler.

” ‘These birds are territorial in the breeding ground, they set up their territories, and they fight with each other to defend it,’ he says.

“Armed with this knowledge, a nearly invisible net strung between two repurposed fishing poles, a lifelike plastic warbler decoy and a looped recording of birdcalls, Kim’s trap is set. …

” ‘We have these long-term population monitoring routes across the Northwest. And a surprising number of species are declining,’ says Oregon State professor Matt Betts. ‘Actually, more than about half of the species that live in a forest like this are in decline.’

“Rising temperatures can shrink where some birds can live and where they can find food. For the hermit warbler, those declines are up to 4 percent each year.

“Research by Oregon State’s Betts and Sarah Frey found warblers declined in areas with young forests, including those replanted after clear-cut logging. But hermit warblers are doing better in other areas.

” ‘In landscapes that had more older forest, their population declines were lowered, or even reversed, even though the climate has been warming,’ Frey says.

“The Pacific Northwest has had a decades-long push to preserve its old-growth forests, and the warblers thrived in them. That suggests these forests somehow shielded them from the ill effects of rising temperatures. The question is why, and that is where this new study comes in.

“Kim and fellow Oregon State researcher Adam Hadley move the trapped hermit warbler’s feathers aside and attach a tiny radio tag to its back using nontoxic glue (the kind used for fake eyelashes). Then they release the bird, and it flies away. …

“They walk down a drainage though a 50-year-old tree plantation, a remnant of the logging past at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest. Then they cross into a grove of much older trees, some close to 300 years old.

“Hadley explains that the temperatures can be different at various heights of a tree. ‘It’s possible that when it’s warmer, [songbirds] may be only using the bottom and more shady parts of the trees,’ he says. He guesses they may move up higher when it becomes cooler.

“He says the complex layers and sheer biomass of old-growth keeps the temperature in these forests up to 5 degrees lower. But the researchers can’t fully understand what’s going on without knowing more about how the birds use the forests. …

“Hadley waves the antenna through the air trying to pinpoint the warbler’s location. … He and the others will compare the hermit warblers’ movements with temperature data they’ve also been gathering. They hope to get another step closer to understanding how this native songbird species might cope with the warming climate.”

More. This seems like an extra reason to protect old-growth forests, not just replant after logging. But how long will five degrees cooler be enough?

Kim, do you know about this? And are you seeing these warblers at your banding station?

Oregon State scientists are tagging and tracking hermit warblers in hopes of learning why their numbers have stabilized in places with old-growth forests, despite declines in other areas.

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Photo: Tom Banse/Northwest News Network
This laser unit is one of six that repel thieving birds from the blueberry fields of Meduri Farms near Jefferson, Oregon.

Are you familiar with the arch-criminal Moriarity, featured in Sherlock Holmes stories? “Moriarity” is what my husband called every devious catbird that got through his garden defenses last summer, eating many of the best berries. No sooner had my husband patched a piece of netting that the birds had sneaked through than they collaborated with one another to extend some tiny opening. And then they would get all tangled up and have to be rescued. (As Kim says, “Catbirds have such disorganized feathers.”)

Suzanne suggested the Scare-Eye Bird Chaser she had seen at a Rhode Island farm, but New Shoreham is too windy for a balloon defense.

A plastic hawk interested the grandchildren, but Moriarity was bored.

Next year it might be necessary to think about lasers.

Tom Banse writes at NPR, “During every berry-picking season in the Pacific Northwest, blueberry and raspberry growers fight to prevent birds from gobbling up the crop before harvest. This year, some farmers are trying something new to scare away the thieving birds: lasers.

“Justin Meduri manages a large blueberry farm and cherry orchard outside Jefferson, Ore. Birds like both fruits.

” ‘Flocks can move in of up to 2,000 to 3,000 starling birds,’ Meduri says. The starlings gorge themselves and knock down berries right as the crop is ready to pick. When he didn’t take countermeasures, Meduri says the damage was ‘inconceivable, huge. We had almost a 20 to 25 percent, maybe even 30 percent damage loss.’

“Meduri says he previously hired a falconer to protect his fields. But the falcons were expensive, temperamental and sometimes flew away. Then last year, he became one of the first farmers in the U.S. to install automated lasers. … Meduri is thrilled with the results.

” ‘[The lasers are] running right now as we speak. You’re out here in over 175 acres of blueberries,’ he says, punctuating the observation with a staccato of hand claps. ‘There’s not one bird that you see flying around.’ Meduri says that had any birds been in the bushes, the clapping would have made them come out. …

“[Laser maker] Bird Control Group started out in Europe, for the most part using lasers to shoo pesky birds away from industrial sites and airports. In the U.S. market, the agricultural industry appears to be the most promising.

“[Director of North American business development is Wayne] Ackermann says some of his initial sales have come from farmers trying to appease neighbors. …

“The silent lasers proved a friendlier — and sometimes better — bird repellent than traditional tools such as propane cannons or squawk boxes. The lasers are also friendlier than using poison or a 12-gauge shotgun.”

On second thought, the price is prohibitive for a backyard gardener, and not enough is known about whether the lasers are harmful to the birds. Researchers at Purdue University are studying that very question. So stay tuned for that — and for more on the misadventures of Moriarity.

The story is originally from the Northwest News Network. You can read the rest of it here.

Photo: Scare-Eye Bird Chaser
Another possible bird-control option if you don’t live in a windy region.

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Sometimes when I’m trying to cross a city street in traffic that’s coming from all directions, I think about how people who don’t visit cities much — Inuit people, say, or rural tribesmen in Africa  — would cope. Probably about as well as I would cope dealing with the habits of lions or polar bears. We all develop the survival skills we need most.

Birds do, too. According to Scientific American, urban birds develop skills that let them outwit their country cousins on certain tests.

Christopher Intagliata reports,”While visiting Barbados, McGill University neurobiologist Jean-Nicolas Audet noticed that local bullfinches were accomplished thieves.

” ‘They were always trying to steal our food. And we can see those birds entering in supermarkets, trying to steal food there.’

“And that gave him an idea. ‘Since this bird species is able to solve amazing problems in cities, and they’re also present in rural areas, we were wondering’ are the rural birds also good problem-solvers, and they just don’t take advantage of their abilities? …

“So Audet and his McGill colleagues captured Barbados bullfinches, both in the island’s towns and out in the countryside. They then administered the bird equivalent of personality and IQ tests: assessing traits like boldness and fear, or timing how quickly the finches could open a puzzle box full of seeds.

“And it turns out the city birds really could solve puzzles faster. They were bolder, too, except when it came to dealing with new objects—perhaps assuming, unlike their more naive country cousins, that new things can either mean reward … or danger.

“The study is in the journal Behavioral Ecology [Jean-Nicolas Audet et al, The town bird and the country bird].”

More here.

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There’s always something fun over at PRI’s environmental radio show Living on Earth. Here’s a story that ran in March about the unique bird species isolated in Northeastern Australian rainforests.

Bob Sundstrom wrote up the audio report of BirdNote‘s Mary McCann: “The Eastern Whipbird hangs out in the dense understory. It’s dark, crested … nearly a foot long and emerald-green with white spots. … The large, pigeon-like Wompoo Fruit-Dove … feathered in a stunning combination of green, purple, and yellow, [is] clearly named for its voice.

“Pig-like grunting on the forest floor tells us we’re in the company of the largest bird on the continent – the Southern Cassowary. On average, the female weighs 130 pounds and stands around 5 feet tall, looking like a giant, lush, black hairpiece on thick legs. A helmet called a casque makes it look as much like a dinosaur as any living bird.” Five feet tall? I think I know a one-year-old who would like to try riding it.

The bird sounds on the radio show were provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Hear them all here, where you can also enjoy the equally far-out pictures.

Photo: Jan Anne
Southern Cassowary

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I love thinking about sunlight and shadow. Dickens uses them a lot for Richard and Ada’s story in Bleak House — maybe my favorite book of all time.

“So young, so beautiful, so full of hope and promise, they went on lightly through the sunlight … So they passed away into the shadow, and were gone.”

Many of you know what the decades-long case of Jarndyce vs Jarndyce did to Richard and Ada’s bright hopes. I’ve come to think that it was not so much Richard’s fevered expectations of an inheritance that brought the most sorrow, but his need to fix blame. Blame is corrosive.

When I interviewed a formerly homeless Marine last week and he started telling me about how upset he was that something bad had just happened with his benefits, I was touched by how he kept reminding himself how to cope, saying, “I believe in fixing the problem — not the blame.” Words to live by.

The first three photos were taken early Saturday morning, when the effects of sunlight and shadow were especially breathtaking. (I can never resist that old graveyard. You’ve seen it here in all weathers.)

The next three were taken at the playground near John’s house. Every few months, new creatures appear on that tall tree stump. (You’ve seen previous creature photos, too, on this blog.)

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Photo: PA/Owen Humphries
Murmuration of starlings over Gretna, Scotland

Starlings swarm in flash mobs over Scotland every November and February, and they don’t even need social media to remind them it’s time.

According to an article at the BBC, “Tens of thousands of the birds are regularly seen around this time of year near the Dumfries and Galloway town. It is one of the most famous locations for the natural spectacle, the reason for which is not definitively known.

“A survey of the birds across the UK is currently under way with members of the public urged to record sightings. The poll, conducted by the University of Gloucestershire and the Society of Biology, is the first of its kind and has already received more than 600 reports from Cornwall to John O’Groats.

“Dr Anne Goodenough, reader in applied ecology at Gloucestershire University, said: ‘One of the theories behind the murmurations is that it means they are safer from predators such as hawks and falcons.

” ‘Another theory could be they are signalling a large roost and it could be a way of attracting other birds to that area to build up a big flock as it would be warmer. It’s much warmer to roost as a big group rather than a smaller one and the murmurations can be as big as 100,000 birds.’ ”

More here. Don’t miss the other amazing photos at the BBC site.

YouTube video: DylanWinter@virgin.net

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When I lived in Minneapolis (1997-2000), I liked to walk in Loring Park. It was a lovely oasis located right downtown. The only problem was you really had to watch your step. Canada Geese frequented its pond and besmirched the grass and sidewalks.

Then one year, the city had an idea. It planted tall grasses around the perimeter of the pond. Before you knew it, no more geese! At the time, I was told that geese didn’t like the way the grasses feel on their feet when they come out of the water. But an article yesterday about the use of tall grasses at an Ohio airport said birds like geese fear long grasses because they could be hiding predators.

Whatever works.

Scott Mayerowitz reported the story for the Associated Press. “One Ohio airport is now experimenting with a new, gentler way to avoid bird strikes: planting tall prairie grass. …

“Says Terrence G. Slaybaugh, director of Dayton’s airport. ‘If we are going to protect the long term use of airports in an increasingly populated area, we need to be less intrusive and find ways to contribute in a positive way to our surroundings.’

“The thick grass has other benefits: preventing water runoff, taking carbon dioxide out of the air and requiring only one mowing every three years. Bird lovers are also excited about the use of non-lethal methods to keep birds away from the airport. The airport’s neighbor, the Aullwood Audubon Center and Farm, has been working closely with aviation officials on the tall grass project.

” ‘It’s a watershed moment. Our airport is embracing it,’ says Charity Krueger, executive director of the center.’ ” More here.

Photo: Chris Gregorson 
Loring Park, Minneapolis. Note the tall grasses around the pond.

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These photos are mostly from walks in Concord, although one is from Blithewold in Bristol, R.I. I’d like to develop my eye for good shots in winter, but there are so many more reasons to take pictures in spring! I especially love old, blasted trees with delicate, young flowers. I include one, a dogwood. The lilac in the graveyard is another tree that doesn’t know it’s not as hale and hearty as ever.

On Nashawtuc, a hundred different bird calls replaced the sounds of traffic.

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