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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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On Sunday, the Concord Bookshop had a guest speaker, bird maven David Allen Sibley.

There was a great turnout to hear him and to have him sign the new edition of his guide.

He talked about his painting process and his interest in perception as it applies to people who are convinced they see a bird they are looking for. From what he has read, he says, it’s very much like the phenomenon of witness identification of suspects — many factors may distort what witnesses think they see. (Consider the old guy in the play Twelve Angry Men, for example, who didn’t have his glasses on.)

When asked how 12 people who identified the probably extinct ivory-billed woodpecker in Louisiana in recent years could all be wrong, he tries to explain why it’s likely: They get only a glimpse, they are desperate to see it, they are being paid to find it, etc.

I want to believe they saw it, of course, but I thought his points were interesting.

Also interesting was the way he paints. He has a very good sense of the profile of the bird, having drawn birds since he was seven. So in the wild he looks for identifying markers, sketches in the profile, and adds the marks. Then he paints the bird in the studio. He does a lot of research, but once he has done all he can, he takes only about an hour to do each painting.

Read more at Sibley’s website, here, and at his Facebook page, here.

Below is a bird that a woman in the audience Sunday asked about, the Snowy Owl. The questioner wanted know whether the many Snowy Owls that were sighted around New England this winter would stay. He said that, no, they were already heading back to the Arctic and only came because there were a lot of babies hatched up north this year and not enough food to go around.

Art: David Allen Sibley
Snowy owl

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If you can’t photograph the ivory-billed woodpecker in Louisiana or Cuba or wherever it is rumored to have survived, the next best thing is to find a brand new species. That’s what Simon Mahood did in Cambodia.

Thomas Fuller writes about it in the NY Times. “The discovery of new fauna conjures up images of Livingstone-like explorers trekking through malaria-infested jungles. But scientists working in Cambodia have reported a new species of bird in a decidedly less remote environment: the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

“Simon Mahood, the lead author of an article released Wednesday in the Oriental Bird Club’s journal Forktail, says the bird’s primary habitat is about a 30 minutes’ drive from his home in Phnom Penh, ‘allowing for traffic.’

“ ‘I’ve always wanted to discover a bird species, but I never expected it would happen like this,’ Mr. Mahood, who works for the Wildlife Conservation Society in Cambodia, said by telephone from Phnom Penh. ‘I certainly didn’t expect to be standing in flip-flops and shorts a half an hour from home.’

“Roughly the same size as a wren, with white cheeks and a cinnamon cap, the bird was named the Cambodian tailorbird by the team that documented the discovery. Tailorbirds get their name from the way they build their nests, by threading spider silk or other fibers through a leaf, creating a sort of cradle.” More.

Photo: Ashish John/Wildlife Conservation Society
The Cambodian tailorbird was found near Phnom Penh.

 

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I took a walk on Lakeside Drive today and saw scores (hundreds?) of swallows swooping and wheeling like berserk bats toward the lake, upside down over the road, then sideways and shuddering back toward the lake again in a group dance with no obvious explanation.

When I went online and Googled “swallows going berserk,” I found an Audubon blog post in New Hampshire that used that exact phrase. But the author  thought the swallows were just feeding and happy to see spring arrive.

I have decided that the collective noun for swallow should be “delirium,” as in “a delirium of swallows.”

Are you into collective nouns for birds and animals? They can be a lot of fun, with terms going back hundreds of years. Find your favorites at Wikipedia, here. A congregation of alligators, a rabble of bees, a coalition of cheetah, a gulp of cormorants, a consortium of crabs, a murder of crows — and I am only in the c’s!

Be sure to use “a delirium of swallows” as your next opportunity and appear to know something esoteric that no one else knows.

Video: John Downer Productions

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I went online to find information about a Vermont bird book mentioned briefly in the Boston Globe this week. I found more at Seattle pi, of all places (the pi comes from Post-Intelligencer, the newspaper’s name before becoming completely virtual).

Seattle pi writes, “Some bird species that depended on open farmland have seen their populations drop over the last three decades while the land has grown up into forests, but during that time some other bird species have become more common than they were, according to the new book, the ‘Second Atlas of Breeding Birds of Vermont.’ …

“The book was produced by the Norwich based Center for Eco-studies and the Department of Fish and Wildlife and is described as the most complete assessment of birds ever assembled for Vermont.

“The book took 10 years to produce with input from 350 volunteers who spent 30,000 hours working on the project. … [It] includes 208 photographs, 415 maps, 591 tables and 215 graphs.

“We cannot know the nature of Vermont, the health of the woodlands, wetlands and other wild places, without knowing the status of our birds,” said Rosalind Renfrew, a biologist with the Center who edited the book.” More.

I like the image of 350 volunteers. Birds rely on volunteer bird lovers in so many ways. John has helped with the Christmas bird count in the Boston area. And his son already identifies a few birds, with additional support from John’s  bird-loving wife. Imagine how many birds my grandson will recognize by the time he is three!

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Photograph of northern lapwing off course in Massachusetts: Ian Davies

Birds deal with hurricanes better than you might think.

Some get blown off course, but they adapt. Today’s Boston Globe has a story by Peter Schworm and Melissa M. Werthmann on northern lapwings that Hurricane Sandy detoured from their Scandinavia-to-African migration route. The lapwings are now delighting birdwatchers on Cape Cod, Nantucket, and in Middleborough. Read more here.

And Natalie Angier writes at the NY Times, “Biologists studying the hurricane’s aftermath say there is remarkably little evidence that birds … have suffered the sort of mass casualties seen in environmental disasters like the BP oil spill of 2010, when thousands of oil-slicked seabirds washed ashore, unable to fly, feed or stay warm.

“ ‘With an oil spill, the mortality is way more direct and evident,’ said Andrew Farnsworth, a scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. …

“To the contrary, scientists said, powerful new satellite tracking studies of birds on the wing — including one that coincided with the height of Hurricane Sandy’s fury — reveal birds as the supreme masters of extreme weather management, able to skirt deftly around gale-force winds, correct course after being blown horribly astray, or even use a hurricane as a kind of slingshot to propel themselves forward at hyperspeed. …

“In preparation for a possible offshore wind development project, Caleb Spiegel, a wildlife biologist with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and his colleagues at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management have attached transmitters to the tail feathers of several types of migratory birds, including the northern gannet, a big waterfowl with a spectacular fishing style of falling straight down from the sky like a missile dropped from a plane.

“As it happened, one of the gannets was approaching the southern shore of New Jersey at just the moment Hurricane Sandy made landfall there, and Mr. Spiegel could catch the bird’s honker of a reaction. Making a sharp U-turn, it headed back north toward Long Island and then cut out to sea along the continental shelf, where it waited out the storm while refueling with a few divebombs for fish.

“ ‘The bird has since returned to New Jersey,’ Mr. Spiegel said. ‘It’s pretty much back where it started.’ ” More here.

Photograph: NY Times
A protected area for plovers in Lido Beach, N.Y., after a 2009 storm.

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