Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Cape Wind Draft EIS Excerpts

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), one of America's first comprehensive environmental laws, requires federal agencies initiating "major federal actions significantly affecting the human environment" to first prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).  Although the statute does not require the agency to follow any recommendations or mitigation measures included in an EIS, the requirement has given strength to environmental causes by a) establishing a public record of a project's potential environmental impacts and b) providing a basis to slow or prevent a major federal action if the EIS is ignored or insufficient.  

In response to a permit application from Cape Wind Associates, the Army Corps of Engineers has prepared a draft EIS for the proposed Cape Wind project off the coast of Massachusetts.  It's hundreds of pages long, and includes information on the farm's potential impacts on everything from sediment to recreation to shellfish and, of course, birds.  

Reading through the section on possible impacts to birdlife makes me feel very happy that someone is putting so much thought into this.  As I have said on this blog before, the issue of birds and turbines is much more complicated than many non-birders initially think it to be.  Potential threats vary from family to family or species to species, depending on each of their individual behaviors.  This EIS does, I think, a great job of laying out what is different about each group of birds and how an offshore wind farm may affect them.

Not everyone is happy with the bird-related content in the EIS.  Susan Nickerson of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, a group "discouraging the development" of Cape Wind, insists that the Minerals Management Service should suspend its review of the project based on the views of the US Fish & Wildlife Service's comment in opposition to the project [I can't find the USFWS comment on the DEIS, can someone help?].  Ms. Nickerson's piece, though impassioned, does not indicate much actual consideration of the DEIS proposals.  This quote from her article:
At California’s Altamont Pass, thousands of birds are slaughtered by spinning wind turbine blades every year, despite efforts at adaptive management. If this technique does not work for land-based wind, how could it work for an offshore project like Cape Wind?
clearly misses the fundamental point (as laid out in detail in Section of the DEIS) that the comparative risk to birds from the Cape Wind project and the existing Altamont Pass site are very different.  

Environmental Impact Statements are made to be read.  It is the public's duty to make sure that the agencies in charge of these projects are taking everything into account, and a lot can slip by if nothing's said.  Below I'll reproduce the section called Risk By Bird Group, but there are additional materials at the pages of the Minerals Management Service and the Conservation Law Foundation.  Section 5.7 discusses the project's potential effects on "Avian Resources," but birds are mentioned many other places.  Below I've reproduced (poorly) a portion of Section 5.6, Risk By Bird Group:

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Interview with Steve Vose, the Rabid Outdoorsman

Like it or not, birdwatchers are not the only group of people out in the woods looking for birds.  Every year, millions of Americans participate in a sport that long predates recreational birding: bird hunting.  Millions of individual birds are taken annually, and the range of species includes turkey, grouse, dabbling ducks, sea ducks, mergansers, mourning doves, rail, coot and more.  

Hunting is something of an elephant-in-the-room for the sport of birding.  It is undisputed that birding owes a lot to hunting - from the role that hunting played in early species collection and exploration to the introduction of game birds that have now become common species - but the idea of shooting and killing a bird is so foreign and, frankly, appalling to most birders that any meaningful reconciliation between the two groups seems unlikely.  [Or maybe not.  In full disclosure I've participated in a stocked pheasant and chuckar hunt in Ohio and had a great time.  I also hunt deer in Maine, but have never shot one.]

Whatever factor makes some people bird-watchers and other people bird-hunters, doesn't change the fact that both groups together know birds better than anyone else.  In order to start bridging the gap between the two groups I talked to Steve Vose, the Rabid Outdoorsman, author of The Maine Outdoorsman website.   Steve is a great writer, and had some very interesting things to say about the ethics of hunting.  He also gave a great answer to my guilty-pleasure question about just what these birds taste like.  Here's Steve:

Birdist: When did you start bird hunting? What birds do you currently hunt?

The Rabid Outdoorsman: I suppose mine is a classic tale of being introduced into hunting from a very young age. First following along behind Dad as he hunted for grouse and woodcock and then progressing to using a BB gun to learn proper gun handling techniques. As I aged, I progressed to more powerful gauge firearms and finally began going out on my own by the age of 14. In my current phase of hunting, I have incorporated the use of a dog that adds an entirely new level of hunting enjoyment. Not only is she a loving and faithful companion but she also aids in the discovery and recovery of game.

I currently hunt or have hunted all legal game birds.

Were you interested in birds before you started hunting them, or did hunting lead you to birds?

I have always been interested in all animals big and small. I remember as a kid my brother and I had an old TV that was gutted and fitted with a Plexiglas front that we filled with bird nests, animal skulls and small fake birds we would buy in craft stores. Hunting to me is another outlet used for enjoying the outdoors as much as the other pursuits I enjoy such as fishing, rock climbing/mountaineering, photography, hiking or kayaking.

Can you briefly describe some different hunting techniques for hunting different birds?

Volumes of books have been written concerning this question. A majority of the fun associated with hunting is that you are constantly trying to outsmart the game animals you are pursuing. I currently hunt turkeys, grouse, snipe, woodcock, sea and puddle ducks. Each of these endeavors requires a completely different skill set. Just hunting turkey will vary in technique depending if it is spring or fall, hunted with bow or gun, from a blind or by actively stalking. If there is one “technique” that not enough hunters understand it is that one must thoroughly scout outside of hunting seasons to determine where game animals are in the highest densities. Unfortunately most hunters do not invest enough time in this most critical of steps and seriously negatively impacts their success rate.

What is the process in Maine for someone to become a bird hunter?

An individual who wishes to begin bird hunting should first take a “Hunter Safety Course”. Bottom line is that attendance at these now mandatory courses have saved countless lives since their inception. Interested individuals should also hunt for their intended species with a licensed Maine guide or a competent and safe hunting companion that knows how to successfully hunt for that game animal. Scheduled youth hunting days are also a great option for kids under 16 as they allow kids to hunt in the woods during periods of time when adults are unable. In theory this allows game animals to be much more plentiful, available and less pressured.

What does a hunter do with his killed birds? If he eats them, does he eat ALL of them?

Ethically killing for the sake of killing is not hunting. For many individuals outside of the hunting world I think this is an extremely difficult concept to grasp. Hunting is much more than pulling a trigger it is about an individuals primal connection back to the woods and waters as a source of sustenance that dates back a million years. Legally Maine has a “Wanton Waste” law that requires hunters to consume all reasonable parts of every game animal. Additionally, hunters legally can only be in possession of a certain number of game birds (same as daily bag limit) so they must be immediately eaten. Aside from the “law” a good hunter has an obligation to eat what he kills.

I almost hate to ask this as a birder, but what do they taste like (and you can't just say "like chicken!")? What are the different tastes between categories of game birds (i.e., grouse v. ducks)? Do freshwater ducks taste different than sea ducks? Do, say, Green-winged Teal taste different than Blue-winged Teal?

The tastes are unique and varied with every species having different and unique textures, tastes and aromas. As an “outdoor” chef you need to maximize the positives and minimize the negatives. Obviously some species are more desirable to eat than others. Sea ducks and mergansers (fish and mussel eaters) are at the low end while wood ducks (acorn eaters) and teal are at the higher end.

I personally have different recipes for every different game animal depending on its specific culinary qualities. Turkey is typically deep fried in peanut oil, sea ducks and mergansers are combined with pork and beef and made into sausage links that I then hickory smoke, grouse are slow cooked in a dutch oven with bacon and baked beans over the coals of a campfire and puddle ducks are plucked and roasted with apple or honey glaze.

Do you ever run into birders while you're hunting? What do you see as the differences between birders and bird-hunters, and what do you think about those differences?

Sadly, I rarely see others out and enjoying the great outdoors like I have seen in decades past. It is unfortunate that a high percentage of kids these days do not seem connected with the outdoor like they used to. If you get a chance read “Last Child in the Woods” by Louv it is a wake-up call.

There are many similarities; both sets of individuals are “hunters” one group simply uses a camera and the other a gun. Both are serious about their respective sports and both are searching for opportunities to experience nature and the great outdoors in their own unique way. Unfortunately, both groups also have individuals that poorly represent their peers. I have meet inconsiderate hunters in the woods and I have also met inconsiderate nature watchers.

Do you ever feel guilty for killing birds?

If anyone says that while hunting they are never disturbed or “guilty” I would wonder if they are telling the whole truth. No ethical hunter ever wants an animal to suffer needlessly, however, there is nothing “planned” or “perfect” in the hunting world. Whether I get my steak wrapped in plastic and resting on Styrofoam from a slaughterhouse or direct from nature something ultimately had to die for me to eat it and no matter how you cut it this is not a “pretty” process. Eventually, if you hunt long enough something will disturb you and it is how you handle this pressure as a human being that will ultimately determine how and if you develop as a hunter.

What was your most memorable bird hunt?

I literally have gigs of photos and video from different bird hunts from present back several decades. Certainly tops on my list are times spent hunting with family. I remember back in 2001 hunting with my brother for 4 days in Washington County on a productive grouse hunting trip. The weather was beautiful and the birds plentiful but even more importantly was the quality time I was able to spend with my brother. Hunting is only about 10% about pulling the trigger the other 90% is about the family and friends you spend quality time with and the memories shared. ΓΈ

Friday, September 19, 2008

Northern Wheatear in Gray, Maine

I was fortunate enough to catch up to the stray Northern Wheatear that was discovered yesterday in Gray, Maine. It was at the top of Dutton Hill, a beautiful little blueberry-barren-topped knoll just off the turnpike. I showed up at 7:45 and was the only person there. I found the bird after about 25 minutes of nervous searching, and had great looks for the whole hour I stuck around. Just an absolutely beautiful morning.

This is the first look at the bird, a nonbreeding adult [eds. note: Expert identifiers are now calling this bird a juvenile/1st year bird.  Thank goodness for listservs!].

Here's some wheatear information. Check out how not-close they live to Maine! Key ID points here are the white rump, the white supercilium and the overall buff color.

At one point the bird flew up to the top of a tree . . . an odd place for a bird that prefers tundra, beaches and grasslands.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Birdist Symposium: Do Birders Have an Obligation to Report Exceptional Sightings?

I've been thinking recently about the social network created by birding listservs and other reporting mechanisms.  The benefits of birding listservs (of the kind best catalogued here) are many: they help birders find birds, meet and coordinate with other birders, improve their identification skills, etc. I, for one, am almost entirely dependent on my local listserv to plan, understand and coordinate my activities.

However, birding is, at its base, an individual pursuit.  Birders become dependent on listservs because they are convenient, not because they're necessary.  Sightings are posted voluntarily, and users are therfore reliant on the volunteerism of others to make the activity worthwhile.  I find that the nature (and volume) of this mass volunteerism raises a tricky question: since birders receive the substantial benefits of listserv messages for free, at some point do they become obligated to "pay back" into the system sightings of their own?

I posed the following scenarios to several people, both birders and non-birders, to get their take.  I have personally witnessed variations on both scenarios, and I can only imagine that they are common to every birding listserv around.  I purposefully did not mention the ABA's Birding Code of Ethics, in part because I wanted to see if people brought it (or a similar system) up on their own and in part because I don't necessarily see its provisions followed in the field.  

Below is the question I presented, and answers from: Norm Saunders, founder of MDOsprey; Professor David Owen, professor of Environmental Law at the UMaine School of Law; John Beetham, author of A DC Birding Blog; Professor Joseph Grange, professor of Environmental Ethics at the University of Southern Maine; Jeff Harding, a birder from Oregon and finally my own thoughts.

Scenario #1: Carried astray by some natural force, a Wood Stork lands in a marsh in Maine. Although the area is rural, a birder happens to be at the marsh and, luckily, finds the bird. Knowing that there are only a handful of records for the state, the birder excitedly photographs the bird and returns home. He reports the find to his birding friends and emails some of his photos off to the local Audubon chapter for ID confirmation, but does not report the sighting to his local birding listserv (though he frequently relies on the listserv for sightings in other parts of the state). The local Audubon naturalist speeds out to the marsh and rediscovers the Stork that afternoon, but none of the other birders with knowledge of the sighting are able to make it to the marsh until the next morning, after the bird has disappeared. Word of the sighting makes its way onto the listserv the next day.

Scenario #2: Placed by those same mysterious forces, a Northern Hawk Owl is found at the edge of a high school soccer field in Virginia. The birders who discovered the owl quickly alert their local birding listserv and report the sighting on eBird. In a matter of hours, birders are arriving in the dozens. The majority of these birders have never seen a Northern Hawk Owl before, especially in Virginia. Soon, birders cars have clogged the high school's parking lot and have begun to spill out onto the street. The school's soccer team complains about the lack of parking and about the large group of birders milling about the field. Photographers work to get as close as possible to the owl. Several birders talk loudly or bring their dogs, irritating those visitors who see themselves as more respectful and cautious. After several days the bird flies off having been seen by hundreds of birders.

Keeping in mind the factors on both sides: i.e. the intent of listservs to alert all interested birders v. the possible drawbacks of a large influx of birders to a particular site, do you think birders have an obligation to report exceptional sightings?

NORM SAUNDERS, founder of MDOsprey

My response to both of the scenarios is pretty much the same.  Yes, you should report the sighting to your local listserv but only after you’ve done two things:

1) Ensure the well-being of the bird and 2) ensure the well-being of the site.

If reporting the bird will endanger it (this is particularly true of many owl sightings) then you should work with local birders to make sure ground rules are laid down for visiting the bird, for proper behavior while visiting, and for reporting troublesome birders (and photographers) to the local listserv.  Make sure these ethical considerations are spelled out in detail when the observation is reported to the listserv.

If the location of the bird will be problematic to those living or working around the location, then every effort must be made to let the people there know what to expect.  Tell them why the bird is interesting and enlist them in the process of policing birders who show up.  Give them the name of someone in the local birding community who will work with them to deal with problem issues as they arise.

My feelings about NOT reporting a good bird to the local listserv are that this should be done only if the bird is an endangered species, if the bird is on private property with no easy access and the property owners are adamant about no trespassing, or any other reason that would put birders in a bad light with the local community or landowner.   Otherwise I think in this day of competitive birding that we all have an obligation to report good sightings.

Refer your readers to the ABA Code of Birding Ethics at: http://www.americanbirding.org/abaethics.htm

Look here for an interview I did with Norm about the beginnings of online birding, and here for the archives of MDOpsrey.

PROFESSOR DAVID OWEN, Professor of Environmental Law, University of Maine School of Law

I am not a bird-watcher in any formal sense, but it seems to me that at the core of birdwatching must be a love of wild birds; why else would one engage in the activity?  And that love, I would think, should be accompanied by a respect for birds' needs, both individually and as species, for it would be a false love that harms its object.

That means that in selecting his course of conduct, the birder ought to be guided not just by his own desires and the needs of the birding community, but also by the interests of the bird itself. The bird's interests ought to be particularly important if the bird is rare, or appears in a location where it is not typically found, for such a bird is likely to be particularly vulnerable, ecologically valuable, or both.  And if, as this excerpt suggests, a stampede is the common result of a posting about an exotic bird sighting on the list-serve, it seems to me that our birder could not justify posting his siting to the list-serve.  The posting might serve his own short-term interests by repaying the benefits he has derived from the list-serve, and it might benefit other birders by allowing them to see the bird. But it would be destructive to the bird itself, and that, I think, forecloses posting as an ethical option.

That conclusion also suggests that our birder, though he has relied on the listserv to find birds in the past, ought to be careful about using it in the future.  I am not sure he should be absolutely foreclosed from using it to locate birds, but I think that, having determined that he cannot post because it might lead to harmful birdwatcher stampedes, he at a minimum has an obligation to ensure that he never relies on someone else's post to become a participant in a stampede.  To do otherwise would be to wrong not just the bird but also the community.

These conclusions suggest that perhaps the existence of the listserv itself is problematic. Unless birders, like some other recreational hobbyists (rock climbers, for example), can develop a group ethic that prevents stampedes, a listserv seems like an invitation to trouble.

JOHN BEETHAM, author of A DC Birding Blog

I would not advance a general obligation for birders to report rare bird sightings to state or local listserves. In some cases it might be better not to report them right away; for example, someone whose identification skills are weak would be better off finding a local birder or two to confirm the identification before reporting the sighting and prompting many birders to drive miles to look for it.

In your first scenario, I would suggest reporting the wood stork to the state listserv as soon as possible. For someone who regularly gets tips from other birders, there is an obligation to reciprocate when the opportunity arises. (In this I am following a Golden Rule-type principle.) In the second scenario, I would hesitate to report the sighting since I have read often not to reveal owl roosts since attention could force an owl to change locations or disrupt its hunting. I am not sure how susceptible Northern Hawk Owls are to disturbance, but that is something I would want to research before reporting the sighting.

Read A DC Birding Blog.

PROFESSOR JOSEPH GRANGE, Professor of Environmental Ethics at the University of Southern Maine

My response may be too abrupt but it is what I consider to be the correct one. Since these are all voluntary organizations, they should create their own rules for such incidents. If they [the rules] are offensive, dangerous or otherwise illegal, they will quickly come to the attention of the public.

Birdist: If rules were created and adopted, how would a voluntary organization - without overseers or administration - enforce them?

Most voluntary organizations have an array of options for dealing with those who 'break' their rules, from expulsion to fines to public expression etc.

JEFF HARDING, birder, Oregon

To answer the question, do birders have an obligation to report exceptional sightings, no. There is no obligation, but in balance, they ought to. It is totally situational. A birder who has used a listserv, presumably chasing rare birds reported there, has a duty of reciprocity and would be remiss if he failed to pass on a good sighting as soon as he can. In situation #1, assuming there were no issues of private property or disturbance to the bird, he should have phoned the rare bird alert from the site, or a pay phone down the road (if such things still exist), or certainly posted on the listserv as soon as he was home. On the other hand, if the marsh was private, without public viewing space, and the birder was there with the permission of the landowner, it would depend on the landowner. Her permission would be required, and if there would be damage to the habitat or landowner’s facilities, perhaps the location should not be disclosed, although the bird should be reported for the record.

From the ABA code of ethics: 1(c) Before advertising the presence of a rare bird, evaluate the potential for disturbance to the bird, its surroundings, and other people in the area, and proceed only if access can be controlled, disturbance minimized, and permission has been obtained from private land-owners. The sites of rare nesting birds should be divulged only to the proper conservation authorities.

The problem in your second scenario is not with the reporting, but with the birders who were not respectful. Bringing dogs is rarely appropriate and in this case really bad form. Interfering with the soccer game would be bad too, but in a public setting, the birders had a right to park, and use the facilities as much as the soccer team, except for the pitch itself. There is no question that the bird should have been reported.

From the ABA code of ethics:

2(c) Practice common courtesy in contacts with other people. Your exemplary behavior will generate goodwill with birders and non-birders alike.

There is no mention in the code of an obligation to report birds.

BIRDIST, birder, Maine

I think birders do have an obligation to post exceptional sightings on listservs.  Of course the bird's welfare is the top priority, but something bothers me about an individual being able to decide what is and what isn't good for a bird that would provide a lot of joy for other birders.  One of the best things about a listserv is that everyone is equal.  In your inbox, each email appears the same, regardless of the sender's expertise or lack thereof.  I think this group mentality is hurt when birders make the decision on their own to deprive others of a bird.  If a bird requires certain etiquette, make it very clear in the post.  If it is on private property and access is limited, make it clear in the post.  When everyone knows the rules of a particular site there can be better enforcement or self-regulation.  I believe that working towards effective self-regulation or more acceptable methods of enforcement against birders who break the rules is the ideal, not limiting sightings based on personal discretion.  

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Birds at Large V: Just Don't Do It

Oh it's a classic. A classic! Watch, and listen, to the Nike commercial below.

Hear that noise around the :12 second mark, when Dirk's shot is in the air? What screaming call that must certainly have come from that Bald Eagle?

Whelp, it ain't. Every self-respecting birder/television-watcher knows that sound is produced by Red-tailed Hawks, not Bald Eagles. To those in Hollywood, though, the hawk call must sound a whole lot satisfying than the call of the eagle, because nearly every time I see a Bald Eagle in a commercial I hear that hawk call associated with it. It's become a canned noise, right up there in the ranks of legendary canned noises with the Mountain Dew Scream:

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Arizona Park Fees Rise

As reported on A DC Birding Blog, Arizona has recently raised the cost of its recreational (i.e. birding and hiking as opposed to hunting and fishing) state park permit from $15 per individual and $20 for a family to $50 and $75, respectively.

That's bad, but who gets hurt the most? People who can't afford the $50. Who's that? Well, in Arizona, it's likely to be Hispanics.

According to this and this(.pdf), 1.5 million Hispanics live in Arizona, making up 28% of the state's population. The national poverty rate among Hispanics is almost twice the national average: 26.6% compared to 15.4%. Simple economics dictates that when you rise the cost of something, you will lose those consumers who are no longer willing or able to pay the new price.

Although it's not something that pleasant to admit, birding is one of the least diverse activities there is. This great study, Relative Prevalence of African Americans Among Bird Watchers(.pdf), says that one of the major factors that keeps African-Americans away from birding is that they are less likely to be exposed to birding and birders as other people. The phenomenon is called the Don't Loop: when you don't meet people who engage in an activity you are less likely to participate in that activity yourself.

African-Americans, like Hispanics, are another minority in this country with higher-than-average poverty rates. It's possible that a study on Hispanics and birding would find similar results. Raising state park fees by more than 300%, then, can only further disenfranchise Hispanics from birding by making is less likely that they can be introduced to or participate in the activity.

For some, raising fees to state parks may be more than just an annoyance, but a barrier to experiencing public (yes, public) lands and outdoor activities.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Offshore Wind Map Issues

Real cool new (for me, at least) offshore wind power mapping site: OffshoreWind.net. It shows (via those googlemap pins) proposed North American offshore wind farm projects.

What's surprised me the most? The proximity of some of these sites to major bird migration areas. For example:

1. Zoom in on the Leamington Project in Lake Erie (just right of Detroit). Zoom in nice and close. See that point of green land? See it? Do you know what that is? It's Point Pelee, Ontario, one of the World's greatest migration spots (ranked the 5th best birding hotspot in North America)! Look how close that pin is!

Look, I am a HUGE proponent of offshore wind power, even for freshwater. A large part of my enthusiasm, however, derives from the fact that many land-based siting issues (including: bird migrations, NIMBY, transportation restrictions, potential human effects from rotations) can be avoided by siting turbines on featureless, windy bodies of water.

Why, then, is the Leamington Farm positioned directly in the path of one of the world's most celebrated flyways? Because the OffshoreWind.net person messed up. Below is the project map for the Leamington and Kingsville projets, from the South Point Wind website:

As you can see, it's not set directly off Point Pelee. It's close, though. In the end, here is my point:

Offshore wind allows much more flexibility in turbine siting than land-based wind. While siting turbines as close to power users is ideal, offshore wind farms should be sited to take maximum advantage of their location, i.e. away from birds and away from people.

2. Same issue with the Wind Energy Systems Technologies project proposed off Jefferson County, Texas (the northernmost pin on the Texas coast). It's located between the mega-important High Island and Sabine NWR.

I'm conflicted on Gulf of Mexico offshore wind power...or could at least use some convincing. The winds in the Gulf aren't as strong as a lot of other offshore spots. Lighted oil rigs in the Gulf already as many as 300,000 birds a year.

The point is almost the same as the one above: Since offshore wind allows us to put turbines in a wider area, why put them so close to High Island and Sabine NWR, where the birds are possibly flying at a lower altitude to prepare to land?

3. No proposed projects for the coast of Maine? For shame.

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