Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Guys That Birds Are Named After #1: Sir John Franklin

Sir John Franklin wasn't a very good explorer. I'll cut him some slack, though, because exploring the uncharted Arctic in the early 1800's was probably really hard. And cold. On the other hand, he was known around the world as "The Man Who Ate His Boots."

Either way, his name lives on forever in the form of the Gull That Ate Its Boots Franklin's Gull.  

John Franklin was born in Spilsbury, Lincolnshire, England in 1786.  He joined the Navy at 14 and participated in a bunch of battles that I vaguely remember from Western Civ, including the Battle of Trafalgar and the Battle of New Orleans.

Franklin became enamored with the Arctic and the search for a Northwest passage to the Pacific.  In  1819 he led his first expedition in the region.  He decided, for some reason, to go overland instead of by boat.  It ended badly: 11 of the 20 crew members died, there were allegations of murder, cannibalism and, yes, boot eating.  

The first expedition wasn't a total loss, though, and Franklin managed to map over 1,800 miles (!) of Arctic coast.  Good job.

A second expedition in 1825 was better equipped (read: less footwear eating) and explored more of the western Canadian Arctic.

In 1836 Franklin realized that the Canadian Arctic was cold and lonely, and served time as the Lieutenant-Governor of what is now Tazmania.  Although this to me seems like a much better gig, Franklin blew it by pissing off his superiors.  The people of Tazmania liked him well enough, and there is still a statue of him in Hobart.

So, kicked out of paradise, Franklin took one last shot at finding the Northwest passage.  I say "one last shot" because this expedition ended terribly.  In fact, it's remembered as one of the biggest disasters in the history of Arctic exploration.  Let's get into it.

At the time it was the better equipped than any previous journey.  Franklin and 133 others set off from England in 1845 aboard two ships: the Erebus and the Terror (maybe not the names I would have picked).  They stopped in Greenland and were fine.  A whaling ship saw the boats, presumably in good shape, moored to an iceburg off the coast of Baffin Island (near where this gentleman lives today).  And then...nothing.  Not a word.

After a couple years Franklin's wife finally got England to send a search party.  Never before had so many men (129 after some had debarked at Greenland) been lost.  

The details were slow in coming.  The search for Franklin captured the public's imagination, but searching was difficult due to it being, you know, the Arctic.  In 1854 an explorer talked to some Inuit who told of a bunch of white men starving to death nearby and produced some artifacts that linked to the expedition.  Later, a clothed skeleton was found with a note in it's pocket that told of the party's ships being stuck in the ice for a year and a half and most everyone dying, including Franklin.  Poor guy.

And as a final kick-in-the-teeth, the Northwest passage was discovered by guys searching for Franklin.

Franklin and Franklin's Gull

Unlike this website had me thinking, Franklin's Gull had nothing to do with an awesome French ornithologist named Jean Louis Pierre Vieillot.  It had everything to do with Dr. John Richardson, who collected a specimen of this small, black-hooded gull on Franklin's 1823 Arctic expedition.  The bird had apparently been misidentified previously by Sabine (yes, that Sabine) as a Laughing Gull.  Richardson named it Franklin's Rosy Gull, and that name lasted for about 90 years (check out this page from an 1844 edition of Audubon's The Birds of America).  

More Franklin links!

Intro to Franklin's Gull from The Birds of North America. This is where I got the Richardson info.
The Fate of Franklin
A Medical Disaster article from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. Yeah, no shit it was a medical disaster; everyone died.
Sir John Franklin Was Here!.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Interview with Clare Kines of Arctic Bay, Nunavut

I live in Maine. It's cold. Clare Kines lives in Arctic Bay, Nunavut, Canada. It's very cold. Arctic Bay makes Maine look like Ecuador. But, Arctic Bay's got birds.

And you can go to Clare Kines on your way to find them. In addition to being the author of The House blog, Clare and his wife run a bed and breakfast from which you can launch tours into the bird-laced tundra.

Clare and I talked about life above the Arctic Circle, the wonderful assortment of birds to be found near Arctic Bay and, sadly, Clare's first-hand account of global warming.

Map of Nunavut

On the map above, look at the northwest tip of Baffin Island for the town of Arctic Bay.

Where exactly are you located, and how long have you been leading birding tours there?

I live at the north end of Baffin Island, in Canada's High Arctic, in a beautiful little hamlet called Arctic Bay. It's about 700 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle at 73 degrees north. Truly one of the magical places in the world. I've lived up here for going on 9 years. I'm a retired member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and I was posted here for the last four years of my service. I met my wife here, and love is as good a reason as any to settle in a place.

I don't really lead bird tours per se. Leah and I own and operate Kiggavik Bed and Breakfast. I'm "the bird guy" around town and so I end up facilitating people who are interested in birds or birding. Originally we intended on offering some package tours to the Floe Edge, and a Wildflower/Cultural tour but the B&B has taken more of our energies than we anticipated. There haven't been a lot of visitors up here specifically seeking birds but when there are, we provide advice, point them in the right directions or take them to good locations, and make arrangements for guides to the Floe Edge in the right season. In general those that have come up here for birds have been professional cinematographers or photographers.

What birds are those pros looking for?

It depends. Some people come up looking for Arctic Gulls, some just general Arctic fauna/scenery.

Arctic gulls like Sabine's and Arctic Terns? What others can be seen up there?

Sorry, havn't had my coffee yet. IVORY GULLS not Arctic Gulls.

Ha I see. Sorry, I forgot that you're a couple hours behind the US east coast. How easy is it to find Ivory Gulls on the north of Baffin Island?

Ivory Gulls are a pretty rare bird, but they can usually be found in the spring on the ice. The numbers vary from year to year. Three springs ago a group that spent a lot of time on the sea ice reported seeing many birds, and had as many as 12 at their camp at once. The following year they only saw three the entire season. They are a bird of the sea ice though and I've only ever seen one from land, about a week after a film crew trying to find them left after failing to. They are a very curious bird and will usually come check you out when you are out on the land.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that their numbers are dropping. About fifteen years ago people would see them often in town here at Arctic Bay and at the dump. That never happens now. A search for a known large nesting colony on the Brodeur Penisula about five years ago failed to find any birds.

Do most of the birders come looking for nesters in the spring/summer? What other unusual birds can be found in the north of Baffin Island?

I don't think most are looking for nesters. There is quite a range of Arctic species up here. Depending on the location and the time of year. Out at the Floe Edge one could typically encounter, Ivory Gulls, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Common Eider, King Eider, three species of Jaeger with Pomerine Jaegers being less common, Brant Geese, Glaucous Gulls, Iceland Gulls (I've yet to see a Sabine's Gull here but they are a possibility as they nest not too far from here near Pond Inlet), Thayers Gulls, Guillmots and Thick-billed Murres. Shorebirds include Red Knot.

In Sirmilik National Park on the cliffs north of here there is a very large nesting colony of Northern Fulmer. Closer to home there are the small passerines such as Snow Bunting, Lapland Longspur, Horned Lark, American Pipet, and Northern Wheatear. We of course have Raven up here. We see both Gyrfalcon and Peregrine Falcons here, both nest in the vicinity of Arctic Bay. Rough-legged Hawks can also be found here.

Hmm what else? Red-throated Loon are common here, Yellow-billed Loons farther south, near the base of Admiralty Inlet. Long-Tailed Ducks are common. Ringed Plover are pretty easy to find. Vagrants have included Barn Swallows and White-throated Sparrows. Farther afield one can find Snowy Owls. One can also see Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes here.

Ivory Gull

Wow I read that list and my mouth starts to water! It is easy to travel to see birds? Is there permanent snow and ice?

No, it just seems that way at times... eight months of winter and four months of poor snowmobiling. We generally lose our snow late May, early June. Sea ice break up starts around mid-july until the first week of August, although it has started happening sooner of late. We can expect the snow to arrive and stay anywhere from the end of August to the beginning of October. Freeze up of the ocean begins around mid-October, although again the last couple of seasons its been happening later and later.

Travel to birds all depends on species and time of year. Earlier trips to the floe edge are easier as there are less and smaller cracks to cross. We have about 40 kms of roads here and there are great spots for some species that have very easy access.

Some species, like Yellow-billed Loon would require travel by boat, or late season travelling by snowmobile which can be very adventurous.

So you've noticed later freezes and earlier thaws. Am I correct in assuming that these are related to global warming? How, in your estimation, has this warming already effected birds in your area?

I'm assuming that the later freezes and earlier thaws are related to climate change. I suppose that the biggest effect that climate change has been with Ivory Gulls. At least some scientists blame part of their decline to a reduction in multiyear ice, something they are closely allied to.

We've seen some unusual birds, but that happens everywhere, and it would be folly to say that that is the effect of climate change. I mean it might be, but it could just be another lost bird. Elsewhere in Nunavut, such as Baker Lake, they are seeing species, such as magpies, that they've not seen before.

Is the warming having an effect on other non-birding aspects of life Arctic Bay?

Well, people are having to wait longer to get out on the ice for hunting and travel, and leave the ice earlier in the spring. Elders say that they can no longer predict what the ice is going to do. There is the risk of the loss of permafrost, and the resultant shifting of the land, along with the houses on it (That hasn't occurred here, but it has in the western arctic I understand).

And if the loss of ice cover continues, the Northwest Passage becomes a viable trade route, which will have a profound effect on the north.

If I were to come on a birding trip to your neck of the woods, what would a day in the field look like?

That would depend greatly on what time of the year it was and what the target species were. A trip in late April, early May, for instance, would probably be a trip by snowmobile about 10 kms from Arctic Bay to 600 foot vertical red cliffs (The St. George Society Cliffs to look for Gyrfalcon, then a further snowmobile ride out into Admiralty Inlet in the hopes of finding Ivory Gulls. It would be cold, but bright, as we would have 24 hour light (24 hour sun arrives around the 7th of May). There wouldn't be a lot of species found at that time of the year. Later on, say late June early July, a trip to the Floe Edge would have to be an overnight trip, it would be an extremely long tiring day trip. Depending on conditions and how far out the Floe Edge would be it would involve a 6-8 hour snowmobile/komatik ride to the Floe Edge. Along the way we'd stop at the nesting colony of Northern Fulmars (something in the neighbourhood of 30,000 to 50,000 pairs). We'd spend time along the Floe Edge, common species would be King Eider, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Glaucous Gulls, Raven, Thick-billed Murres, Black Guillemots, Ivory Gulls (not common but likely), amongst others. Hopefully there would also be Polar Bear and Narwhal.

In mid July land trips would involve driving to some prime areas, (there is an abundance of wildflowers then), nesting Red-throated Loons, Ringed Plover, the smaller passerines. A day hike out to pre-contact Inuit dwellings and above the cliffs would net most of the small passerines, probably Rough-legged Hawk and others. ø

Friday, January 18, 2008

Interview with Kathryn Burton of Save Our Swans

The Connecticut Audubon is considering asking the State to cull its mute swan populations, claiming that the birds are non-native and are causing damage to coastal environments.

Kathryn Burton, president of Save Our Swans, disagrees with the science behind the CT Audubon's claims, and is ready to fight any effort to control mute swan populations.

Do you believe the Connecticut Audubon's claim that Mute Swans are "wreaking havoc" on coastal ecosystems?

No, and its just not belief, it is verified by a lack of data promised year after year. There certainly has been enough time for Maryland and/or Connecticut to do the studies. Maryland has the USGS and a variety of other experts and Connecticut has University of Connecticut. The "bird man" there, Chris Elphick, who was editor for the new Sibley handbook of birds, sent me an email, which I'll attach. It says he has "read no studies that show major problems with the swans, but if the feds are hell bent on a killing program, then they must do it, quickly." Grant receivers sometimes sell their souls for that money and throw ethics out the window. This is a fact S.Dillon Ripley, who headed Smithsonian and the bird department at Yale, was afraid was happening in the environmental movement and he was right.

As president of a coastal land conservation trust, I am a member of Wetlands International, and a RAMSAR (a U.N. org) associate, also British and American Ornithological Unions and I am very involved in the health of bodies of water, worldwide. On the east coast, we have two bodies of water that are the "poster children" for abused watersheds and dieing coastal areas, the Chesapeake Bay and the Long Island Sound, both suffering from almost four hundred years of abuse from man. Maryland has its chicken and hog farms immediately adjacent to the shore, as well as chemical, paper, and industrial facilities and Connecticut has, I'll name just one company, Pfizer, which dumps 600,000 pounds of solid and liquid waste into the Sound and we have ancient infrastructure that allows non-point pollution to seep into every creek, stream, lake and river unabated, because the state cannot deal with making the citizens do what's right...as usual the problem is both about money and politics.

Because after thirty years of grants being poured into the Chesapeake the situation has never improved, the Federal government, under NOAA, will be taking it over in two years. The problems should not be blamed on any of the more than two million birds that fly through or overwinter there and eat the grasses. It is what birds do and if we had kept it clean both birds and people would be better off.

There are no problems with Mute Swans anywhere else in the seventy countries in which they are found, in fact little England and Holland each have more Mute Swans than we have, here, 20,000 without problems. England, in fact, has created laws to get rid of the degraded lead shot that has been killing off birds for many years and are delighted to announce more swans are there now than before the program started.

Why would Connecticut announce plans to control populations of Mute Swans - a beloved bird in the eyes of the general public - if they weren't actually a threat to coastal waters?

I have the minutes of meetings and decisions made at meetings in which the decision was made to do as a program, what had been done in some areas as "silent takings," by individual agents for a long time. I will be happy to send it to you [Ed. note: tis was not sent] and it does not include discussion of "Problems" presented against the mute swans as a defense. The first activities were the breaking of necks in Yosemite, not on a coastal shoreline or in an eelgrass bed, simply "because they were there."

Remember, five species of swan come onto the American continent, Trumpeter, Whooper, Bewickii, Tundra and Mutes. Whooper and Bewickii are killed on sight by agencies, Tundra are hunted, that leaves Mute and Trumpeter, whose number at 26,000+ is higher than the Mute's number have ever been, by about 10,000.

The decline in hunting numers has created a need for "trophies," and among these, will be the Trumpeter Swan, already hunted during trials in the Pacific Flyway, a program approved years ago by ex president of The Trumpeter Swan Society, Harvey Nelson.

Banko, in the last few pages of The Trumpeter Swan, warns against the hybridization potential if Mutes and Trumpeters fly together, which they do already, in some areas. Hybrids may be good for cars, but the hunters do not want them. The swan family is so close genetically, they can produce fertile offspring as shown by Charles Sibley at Yale.

Anyway, I believe this all started very early on, when the Hudson's Bay workers saw the Mute Swans as a symbol of the crown they were killing themselves to keep wealthy, across the ocean. They were right, but should not have hated the bird for what Henry VIII did by naming the bird "Royal."

The Audubon claims that the reason behind the plan is that Mutes are an invasive species that threaten native species. Do you disagree?

Yes, and they have no proof behind the claim, or it would have surfaced in one of our several cases in federal court. They have only their name, which they are quickly sullying, through a variety of things, like opening up their properties for hunting, just like The Nature Conservancy.

There are 20,000+ Mute Swans in Holland, England, a number of countries smaller than the U.S. without problems. In fact the swans are carefully protected in many. The number has never gone passed 16,000 according to USF&W numbers, provided by the fourteen states in which Mute Swans live.

Mute swans were thought to be non-native in a number of countries, that is brought by man rather than flying in and settling down on their own, which is the agency's definition of "native," but since the 1970s specimens have been found in bogs from thousandsa of years ago, in England, Holland, Sweden among others, showing their historic range remains today.

The fossils found here and studied at Berkeley show a taxa identified in the resultant papers as "very close to Cygnus olor, or as in the case of Arizona, "probably a Mute Swan." the identification is relatively simple as their interior architecture is different, with the windpipe going directly into the lungs, without the long loop back and then out, as seen in the other swans.

Denment'ev, the great Russian scientist in his book Birds of the Soviet Union Vol 2 (1951) put the Mutes in the Russian Maritimes, right across from Alaska a passage used by millions of birds, including Whooper, Bewickii and Whistler, the last two now comingled as "Tundra swan." The Tundras are now hunted here and the Whoopers are shot on sight on state or federal lands. The Trumpeter will face the same future, as an open swan hunting season has been approved by The Trumpeter Swan Society.

Have there been Mute fossils (or other evidence of native populations) found in Connecticut?

No one has looked for them or other birds, I guess because of the vast areas of shale and granite and a very shallow growing medium available. Not much work here, none that I can name, except the dinasauers found in Rocky Hill in the 1930s or 40s.

Until recent time, it was thought that hunting for bird fossils was a waste of time, because the strength of their bones, through leeching of minerals, etc was not thought of. Famous spots, such as the Klamath Basin, Anza Borrega Desert, LaBrea Tar Pits...Paleontology in general has really come a long way, at a time when it is failing in attracting grants and interest from the general public, but amazing things have been found...I work with people in the field and belong to Paleonet, most work is done in China, Russia, etc.

Are you against all avian population control measures or just those affecting swans? If so, why swans?

I'm president of a land trust, member of Brit. Ornithological Union, Waterfowl International, a RAMSAR associate (wetlands), British Animal Ecology, former v.p. of CT Federation of Lakes, started Corporate Friends of CT DEP, I avoid the big groups that have become industries focused on parties or making sweetheart deals for major benefactors. I am interested in ALL birds and live in a spot over a dam, so have quite a great view at all times of the year.

I do not keep a "life list," I am interested in their lives, not a fleeting glimpse. That is one very good thing about the swans, you get a view of their lives unavailable with most passerine...I have an enormous collection of books on birds and ecology sciences. I'm also a member of the Hakluyt Society, a group associated with The Explorers Club. It's a history buff's nirvana, focused on the early explorers and their journals. Hakluyt was a geographer who accompanied John White to Roanoke in 1585, a scientific exploration for Raleigh and his drawings of the flora and fauna are famous and document the presence of many birds and some animals and flowers.

There's one of a mute swan in the collection, attached.

I have to admit that you're correct when you say that most birders are most concerned with getting a "fleeting glimpse" of birds.

However, if you are concerned with the lives of all birds, and what the Audubon scientists are saying is correct (that mute swans habits are threatening the lives of other species), aren't some sort of control measures in order? What other ways could Connecticut keep swans other species living in harmony?

I'll send you the Michael Conover studies on Mute Swans in Connecticut [Ed. note: not sent]. They were quite extensive and show a very different picture from that presented by Audubon, National and local. Conover now works for the federal agency, in Utah or Idaho.

If loss of other birds were a factor, the State should not put out raptors, but especially hybrid raptors, like the Peregrine/Gyre falcons, hawks, owls, etc. especially in areas like Central Park, in Manhattan, where they have never been and have devastated the migrating birds.

The loss of birds is more about man than other birds. It is we who are destroying whole species.

Check out The Bay Journal and you will see major storms, over fishing, too many boats, dumping from chicken and hog farms, DuPont, Champion Paper and a dozen military facilities, all right on the Bay, are polluting it to death. This is not to mention the pollution from people.ø

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Interview with Dr. Cleo Small of Save the Albatross

It may be easy to overlook threats to the world's albatross because they spend much of their lives in the open ocean and nest in remote places. Thankfully, the Save the Albatross campaign is around to fight for birds that could otherwise slip out of the public consciousness.

The Save the Albatross campaign is a joint venture between BirdLife International, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and the Volvo Ocean Race. The group has identified the fishing practice of longlining as the biggest threat to albatross, and claims that 100,000 albatrosses die each year on fish hooks. I asked Dr. Small, the campaign's International Marine Policy Officer, about longlining and the future of the world's albatross.

black-browed albatross

How many of the world's albatross species are threatened by longlining?
Nineteen of the world's 22 species of albatross are threatened with extinction. Longlining has been identified as the major threat to many of these species.

Has longlining been increasing or has just the number of fisherman (is this a growing problem?)
Longlining began in the 1950s, and increased rapidly from the 1960s to the early 1990s.

What are the most dangerous areas for albatross?
The highest concentrations of albatrosses are found in the Southern Hemisphere, between around 30-50 degrees South. In these high latitudes, the consistent winds enable the albatrosses flight, and there are rich foraging grounds in upwellings such as on the Patagonian Shelf and Benguela Current. In addition though, the North Pacific is home to four species of albatross, and the Humboldt Current which occurs off the west Coast of South America, is also a key area used by New Zealand albatrosses during the non-breeding season.

Are other birds also being killed by longlining?
The species that seem most susceptible to being caught on longlines are albatrosses and larger petrels (typically those over 400g in weight). Other species are recorded however.

How successful have the various protection measures been (scaring devices, dyed bait, chutes, nighttime rigging etc.)
Simple measures such as bird scaring lines, putting extra weights on the fishing lines, setting lines at night, or blue-dyed bait can be highly effective at reducing bycatch. Reductions of 80 to 90% can be achieved under test conditions, particularly when measures are used in combination. Each of the measures has strengths and weaknesses: for example setting lines at night may be more effective for albatrosses than petrels, since the latter also forage at night; weighting lines means that the line sinks more quickly out of reach of the seabirds, but there is still a 'danger zone' of some size behind the vessel, weights are more effective when used in combination with a bird scaring line.

Is there resistance from fisherman about adopting these measures, other than the cost?
The measures listed above are typically inexpensive. A greater anxiety from fishermen is that the measures will interfere with their fishing operations, affect their fish catch, or that the measures will be a hassle to set up and use. BirdLife's Albatross Task Force works with fishermen to overcome these fears. When set up correctly, measures such as a bird streamer work very effectively and easily. When set up incorrectly, the streamer can break or tangle with the line. It's a two-way process of dialogue, using the ideas from the fishermen too, in order to improve the design of measures.

How can pirate fisherman be stopped?
There are a range of measures being put in place world wide to try to reduce Illegal Unregulated and Unreported fishing. Modern technology is also helping. Measures include Vessel Monitoring Systems which use satellite tracking technology to monitor where legal boats are, at-sea inspection and catch documentation schemes. A key element is port inspection and control, such that only licensed vessels with the correct documentation can offload their fish at ports. In the Southern Ocean, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources has reduced IUU fishing by about 75% in recent years.

If not given adequate protection, how much time do we have before some species disappear?
Some of the most rapid declines in albatross populations are occurring on South Georgia (Georgias del Sur) in the South Atlantic. Here, Wandering Albatross populations are declining by as much as 4% per year, and populations have declined by 30% in the last 20 years.

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