eEcho 2018 Mar-April

Burt’s Birds (March 2018): Varied Thrush

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If you see an orange-and-black bird of moderate size hanging around your feeders, you might think “Robin” and forget about it, but look again: it might be a Varied Thrush, a Robin relative sometimes placed in its own genus. They are handsomely plumaged birds with their contrasting patches of orange and black, including a prominent breast band in males; the colors of male thrushes are similar to those of male Robins—perhaps a bit brighter—and females of both species are comparably duller. But you are most likely to spy one of the thrushes during the winter when they leave their breeding habitat: the dense, wet, coniferous forests, primarily in the mountains, especially fir, hemlock, and spruce groves. There they feed on insects, berries, earthworms, and other invertebrates, sometimes using a fascinating way of feeding in the woods, by grasping a chunk of leaf litter, then hopping backward and tossing the litter aside to expose edibles on the bare ground.

In their dense forest habitat, male Varied Thrushes prefer to defend their territories by singing at dawn, dusk, and after a rain, from the tops of tall trees, reducing them, as Pete Dunne says, “to little more than eerie disembodied notes.” Their nests, probably built by the females, are placed against the trunks of conifers, and the typical clutch of 3-4 eggs is also incubated mostly by the females, probably for about two weeks. These lovely, interesting birds add a touch of beauty to our woods and our yards. (by Burt Guttman, Photo courtesy Eleanor Briccetti, Wikimedia Commons)

Bird-banding Training Scholarships

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BHAS will again offer two scholarships for bird-banding training this coming spring. The six days of training will be presented at Glacial Heritage Preserve over two long week-ends, tentatively scheduled for May 25-28 and June 2-4, by the Center for Natural Lands Management (CNLM). The cost for training each person is $450; BHAS will provide $400 of the fee for each scholarship recipient, so each participant will have to provide the remaining $50. After the training, each recipient will be expected to make a short presentation at a BHAS program meeting and participate in volunteer bird-banding using her/his new skills.

If you are interested in participating in this training and applying for one of the scholarships—people of all ages are eligible—please provide a statement explaining (1) why you would best be suited to receive the training and (2) how this training will be applied to your professional work, personal pursuits, and other interests. Send your statement, by April 1, to Sam Merrill, Conservation Committee Chair, BHAS, at (Photo Courtesy Michael Szetela, one of last year’s scholarship winners)

BHAS Volunteer Staff – Bob Wadsworth

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I monitor Purple Martins at the Boston Harbor marina, and last year I trained a dozen volunteers to monitor bird use of around 50 boxes installed on pilings. This year I worked mostly on my own to monitor the population again. I lead bird walks, especially in South Sound prairie; provide bird identification expertise at the monthly Birding and Breakfast outings; and collaborate with Olympia Stream Team to organize BHAS-led birding outings at Olympia city parks in the spring. As a BHAS Board member and a member of the LBA Woods leadership group, I worked on the effort to get the City of Olympia to purchase 160 acres for a park that was originally slated for housing. And I work on the project to monitor bird usage of a site near Lake Lawrence that is intended for development as a cell-tower site.

Nominations for the BHAS Board

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The Nominations Committee (Bruce Jacobs, Elizabeth Rodrick, and Bob Wadsworth) is soliciting candidates for the board of directors. We will present a slate of officers and at-large board members in the May Echo for election at the May 10 program meeting. Duties of Board members include: attending board  meetings at 5:30 – 7:30 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month, September through June; the Annual Dinner on the first Saturday in March; Board Retreat, one day in mid August; BHAS Program meetings on the second Thursday of each month, 7:00 – 9:00 p.m. from September through May (optional); and serving on at least one committee (see list in each issue of the Echo). If you would like to serve on the board or wish to nominate someone, please contact Elizabeth Rodrick,, by March 30.

Armchair Birding: A Sideways Look at Clouds by Maria Mudd Ruth

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I was out walking in my neighborhood yesterday, craning my neck, scanning the sky to locate the resident eagle that was punctuating the quiet winter day with screams: screams of delight at the high, bright clouds after rain? Or the uptick of humans swarming at the domed capitol building? Or at the arrow-swift flight of pigeons that got away? I never did see the eagle, although some high-flying gulls fooled my eye a few times. But I did return my gaze, entranced, to those clouds.

They animated the sky, tracing the wind, catching the sunlight, streaking the blue with their grays and whites. They moved and changed and massed and trailed off into wisps. If I could mistake a gull’s wings for an eagle, how would I ever name the clouds? Many-syllabic Latin words floated as freely in my mind as their namesakes sported in the sky, but I had to let any identification hopes slip away on the breeze. Despite having just turned the last page on Maria Ruth’s engrossing study, A Sideways Look at Clouds, like Joni Mitchell, “I really don’t know clouds at all.”

But now, significantly, I know what I don’t know. And I possess a template of how I might go about filling in some of the yawning gaps in my understanding of how the world works. As ephemeral as clouds appear to be, they are physical bodies responding to the physics and chemistry and geography of life on Earth, its grit and salt and general mayhem. With tenacity that pushes mere idle curiosity to the mat, Ruth pulls clouds in close and asks more questions than you ever contemplated, probing their mysteries and then digging deeper to question even the questions. Her subject matter may be slippery and, if you tried to clutch them with your hands, even ghostlike, but her voracious questing brings clouds into focus as constructs we can grasp, analyze and name.

This is a serious science-rich study, yet accessible to general readers. Ruth achieves this open-door by forthrightly declaring herself a complete novice in the field and then tugging her readers with her as she plunges in to learn all there is to know about clouds. She finds the experts who can decode the fleeting ups and downs of the molecules that form clouds, of the forces of heat and cold, evaporation, condensation, wind, solar energy and the out-breathing of life forms. It’s all in there: number-crunching, definitions, discovery and more questions. Sometimes difficult, but never dry or dull, it’s worth it to tag along. Ruth also makes this study as refreshing as a summer bike ride and as tingling as her attempt to swim in clouds on a foggy day. She brings the clouds right to us. We really begin to see them.

How is cloud watching like bird watching? They are akin. They draw us outside; they tilt our eyes upward. They fill us with wonder, delight, and questions. They have names that help us remember their attributes and life stories. They rarely stay still for long and teach us to seize the moment and appreciate our luck. They are there, existing for their own sakes but enriching our lives immeasurably. And mercifully, there are field guides to both! In an earlier book, Ruth made the secretive Marbled Murrelet visible even if we never see one; she does the same for clouds. They may fill our skies every day in billowing piles, hazy streaks or rain-leaking solid gray, but now she uncovers their secrets and teaches us to look—and see—them with new eyes. And sometimes eagles, or gulls, sail out of them to surprise us. (by Anne Kilgannon)

The Environmental Impact of Pet Ownership, Part Two

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Last month I wrote about the environmental impact of pet waste (or, what goes out one end …); now I’ll try to convince you to reconsider what you are putting in your furry companion’s other end— your pet’s food. The way many people feed their cats and dogs magnifies, rather than minimizes, their contribution to climate change.

And pets do contribute to global warming. Americans collectively own about 96 million cats and 90 million dogs. (More people own dogs than own cats, but cat owners are more likely to have several cats.) These numbers have been steadily increasing, and so has their environmental impact. All these animals need to eat, and according to a widely cited study by Greg Okin, pets eat a quarter of all the meat consumed in this country. If American dogs and cats formed their own nation they would rank fifth in global meat consumption.

Most of us are aware that meat consumption contributes to climate change because livestock-rearing is a significant cause of greenhouse gases: the microbes that break down cellulose in ungulates’ digestive systems produce methane as a byproduct, which cows, sheep, et al. release when they burp, fart or poop. Methane is much more powerful than CO2 in trapping heat: a given volume of methane traps 100 times more heat than the same volume of carbon dioxide. Although most people assume that vehicles—cars, planes, trains, ships—are a larger problem than livestock, this isn’t true; although less methane is produced by the animals than CO2 is produced by the vehicles, the difference in the two gases’ heat-retaining properties means that the world’s 1.5 billion cattle have a larger overall impact on atmospheric heat retention than all forms of transportation combined.

Meat production also contributes to climate change by encouraging deforestation for land to grow grass and grains. Furthermore, it would be less wasteful to feed humans the grains that go to feed the livestock. These animals also consume huge quantities of water.

I’m certainly not suggesting we give up our pets, but sensible changes in the way we feed them could reduce their carbon footprint. For many years, pet owners fed their dogs and cats pet food made from scraps culled after the cuts eaten by humans were removed. The pets were perfectly happy with this arrangement; in fact, wild felines and wolves prefer organs such as lungs and liver over muscle. If our pets eat mostly scraps, we don’t need as many cattle to feed them and us as we do if they compete with people and eat choice cuts, such as steak. And there is no evidence that human-grade food keeps pets healthier. Unfortunately, advertisers have convinced many pet owners that Fluffy or Fido deserves and benefits from sirloin, and an ever-greater percentage of pet food is made of meat that humans could have consumed. Again, this increases the need for larger cattle herds.

You can also reduce pet-food waste by feeding your four-legged friend the right amount of food. More than half of American dogs and cats are overweight or obese, making them more vulnerable to kidney disease, cancer, diabetes, and respiratory disorders, and decreasing their lifespan. And obviously feeding more than they will eat, even if they stay svelte and leave the food in the bowl, just means more organic matter gets tossed in the trash.

Yet another way to reduce your pet’s environmental impact is to feed them lower down on the food chain. Chicken and fish consumption entails less environmental impact than beef production. (And even my very finicky cat doesn’t prefer beef overall to either chicken or fish; I bet yours won’t, either.) Also, while cats are more truly carnivorous than dogs, and must be fed a meatier diet, both species do fine with some vegetable matter in their food. Again, it is advertising, not science, that drives the trend of having your pet be “grain free” or eat “100% meat.”

Pets can even help you reduce some of your own food waste. Have you considered feeding them leftovers from your own meat-based meals, rather than throwing these leavings away? Most of us eat our own leftovers, but sometimes there isn’t quite enough to save, and you can chop up these bits and mix them into your pet’s food.

These suggestions will save you money and help reduce your family’s carbon footprint. They won’t hurt your pet. And these are the kinds of small changes that can add up to make a difference. (by Kim Adelson, Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A Mid-winter Waterfowl Survey Near Lake Lawrence

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) requested some assistance from BHAS members to survey waterfowl near Lake Lawrence the first week of January. Surveys were conducted at the 163rd-Lane wetland and Smith Prairie. As you may remember, the 25-acre 163rd-Lane wetland is next to a proposed cell tower site that BHAS and local neighbors have been opposing for the last two years. This survey, however, was not about the tower but to help WDFW to provide data to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for its Mid-winter Waterfowl Survey, which is conducted nationwide each year in January. Some geese and ducks are not adequately monitored during the spring and summer because they nest in areas not well covered by breeding-population surveys, as explained on the USFWS website. Abundance indices for these species are obtained from surveys on wintering areas such as the 163rd-Lane wetland. The Mid-winter Waterfowl Survey provides information on population trends for some species, distribution on the wintering grounds, and habitat use. This wetland provides excellent habitat and will be part of future waterfowl surveys.

BHAS members Sue Danver, Rella Schafer, and Alex Foster counted 63 ducks including Ringed-necks, Buffleheads, Common Goldeneye, Mallards and Northern Shovelers. After the wetland survey, the group drove to Smith Prairie, a lovely pasture with a magnificent view of Mount Rainier and a favorite wintering spot for waterfowl just east of Lake Lawrence. Here they counted 98 dabblers including Green-winged Teal, American Wigeon and Northern Shovelers in the ponds. A large flock of Canada Geese made a low flyover above our observation point, landing in the pasture where 85 total geese plus 26 beautiful Trumpeter Swans were counted. Several Kestrels perching atop fence posts provided some wonderful photographs. It was a fun and productive day. (by Sue Danver)

2018: The Year of the Bird

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To celebrate the hundredth birthday of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, a coalition of wildlife organizations has named 2018 the “Year of the Bird.” National Audubon, National Geographic, American Bird Conservancy, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, BirdLife International, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and dozens of other organizations will celebrate the importance of birds in our lives and the role they play in the web of life.

Bird watching is one of America’s fastest growing hobbies; with some 47 million fans. But in the late 1800s it was more fashionable to wear them than to watch them. Wild bird feathers were the fashion rage in women’s hats. In 1886, a New York ornithologist named Frank Chapman went on an unusual “birdwatching” excursion to uptown Manhattan. Instead of live birds, he set out to count the number of women’s hats adorned with wild bird feathers or body parts of wild birds. Chapman counted 542 hats adorned with 174 whole birds or their disembodied parts. Some had not only feathers, but also the eyes, wings, and in some cases, entire bodies of birds. Chapman counted 40 different bird species among them. Boston socialites Harriet Hemmenway and Minna Hall were outraged when they read how commercial hunters were wiping out entire colonies of egrets, terns and herons to supply plumage for the millenary trade. They organized parlor teas to boycott the use of wild bird feathers in women’s hats, and soon had 900 signers. They formed the Massachusetts Audubon Society, one of the first of many Audubon groups to spring up around the country. Their movement led directly to state and federal legislation that ended the commercial trade in wild bird feathers. In 1905, the various Audubon organizations merged to become the National Audubon Society.

On August 16, 1916, the U.S. signed a treaty with Canada, giving sweeping protection to most migratory birds. In 1918, it became federal law as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (MBTA). This effectively outlawed the commercial slaughter of wild birds to provide plumage for women’s hats. The law kept bird species like the Snowy Egret and Trumpeter Swan from going the way of the Passenger Pigeon.

Today, birds face unprecedented threats to their existence that the MBTA could have not anticipated, such as wind turbines, illuminated skyscrapers, beacon lights on towers, reflective glass windows, oil pits, and domestic cats, to name a few. The MBTA is in need of expansion and updating. It also needs to be vigorously defended against repeated attempts to undermine enforcement.

Visit the “Year of the Bird” website, to learn about simple steps you can take to help birds, and how small collective actions, stewardship and citizen science can make a difference for birds and nature. (National Audubon photos: Wild bird feathers were the fashion rage in women’s hats in the late 1890s and early 1900s, prompting the slaughter and near extinction of Trumpeter Swans, Snowy Egrets and other wild birds.)

By Gene Bullock, Kitsap Audubon Kingfisher, Feb. 2018