Radio people often joke that they prefer that medium over television because they “have a face made for radio.” Well, after having my own radio show for a few years, I can say that I have a “voice made for newspapers.” (Hence, my long career in newspaper writing and editing.)
But, despite that, I recently appeared as a guest on John McGauley’s entertaining Friday radio show on WKBK in Keene, N.H. John reads my column in The Keene Sentinel and was intrigued by an article I had written about a bird population study. He asked if I’d do a quick interview to explain it further. Of course, I obliged and was happy to do so.
I hadn’t been on the radio since I pulled the plug on my Bird Calls Radio show six years ago (or thereabouts). John had some great questions and my answers were fairly intelligent (at least I think so) and delivered in my typical better-off-in-newspapers voice with lots of ums and ahs. So, if you’re a glutton for punishment, click on the link below. I’m on for about the first 20 minutes.
I have written extensively about the recent study that shows bird populations in North America have dropped by 29 percent over the last 50 years. While the news overall is concerning, the study did reveal some bright spots.
One piece of good news is that ducks appear to be increasing. Waterfowl are a favorite bird type of mine so this news was heartening. Give me a cool late autumn day, a large pond, a spotting scope and ducks swimming all around, and I’m as happy as a lark.
The duck population increase, in large part, is credited to wetland conservation efforts, much of which was and continues to be paid for by hunters. While this has worked exceptionally well for ducks, it hasn’t worked out quite as well for rails and other marsh birds. There is still work to be done in that area.
But let’s stay positive for this column. Preserving wetlands has led to increased duck numbers. No one can say more ducks is a bad thing.
It also stresses the importance of land conservation as a powerful tool in preserving our birds and other animals. While hunters, through the purchase of stamps and other fees, have contributed mightily to this effort, conserving land is something easily done by anyone. Support your local land trust or other conservation organization and you’re doing your part to help birds in all sorts of habitats.
To put it in numbers, wetland birds have increased by 20 million birds since 1970, according to the recent study conducted by several leading conservation groups. Compare that to the loss of 2.9 billion birds overall in the same time frame.
With the fall waterfowl migration under way, this seems like a good time to look at how some of New England’s more familiar ducks are doing. For this, I studied the summaries written by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, one of the country’s foremost authorities on all things birds. Cornell used data from the North American Breeding Bird Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Partners in Flight to arrive at their conservation status levels. Spoiler alert, all species below except one is listed as “low concern.”
Mallards are North America’s most abundant duck and their population has increased slightly since 1966. Quick quiz: What is North America’s most abundant diving duck? Keep reading to find the answer.
The American black duck is one of several examples of how this can get tricky. On one hand, black ducks have decreased by 84 percent since 1966, according to the NA Breeding Bird Survey. On the other hand, they are still common and of low concern. Cornell added that the declines have slowed since 2004.
Green-winged teal are numerous and increasing, as are gadwall. American wigeons are common but their population has decreased by 65 percent since 1966.
Hooded mergansers, one of my favorite birds, are “fairly common” and are stable or increasing. Common mergansers, despite the huge rafts seen throughout New England during migration, have declined by 65 percent — two percent a year — since 1966. Again, however, they are listed as low concern. Red-breasted mergansers are common and stable.
Common goldeneye are also numerous and either stable or increasing. Bufflehead are decreasing in some areas but increasing overall.
Northern shovelers, redheads and ring-necked ducks are common and stable. Northern pintails, one of New England’s more handsome ducks, are also listed as “common,” but have seen a 70 percent cumulative decline since 1966.
Canvasback have bounced back from low numbers in the 1980s that had landed them on the special concern list and are now considered stable with an estimated 700,000 individuals.
Wood ducks are common and increasing, another good conservation story as their numbers were dangerously low in the late 1800s.
Now for the answers to the spoiler alert and quick quiz. Hint, they come from the same family.
The lesser scaup is the most abundant diving duck in North America, despite a 1.8 percent per year decline since 1966. The global breeding population of lesser scaup is estimated at 3.8 million, according to Partners in Flight.
Finally, greater scaup are “common throughout their range, but their populations are rapidly declining,” according to Cornell. That puts them on the “common species in steep decline” list.
Since this is New England, I figured I’d better include common loons, even though they are technically not ducks. According to Cornell, common loons are “stable and healthy overall.” This despite a slew of threats they face on their breeding grounds.
In a study filled with distressing news about bird populations, ducks and loons thankfully have bucked the trend. Now, let’s keep it that way.
Savanna and I reached the overlook and watched a bald eagle soaring above a sizable flock of Canada geese. The geese knew they were too big to be a target for the huge bird of prey so they went about their day as usual on the river.
After a few minutes, the bald eagle landed on a half-dead tree along the shoreline and settled in on its perch overlooking the slightly rippling water. Before we left the spot, a gang of blue jays flushed a sharp-shinned hawk out of an evergreen. We tried to follow the small hawk’s path but quickly lost sight of it among the trees growing up from the side of the cliff.
We returned to the car and pulled out of the parking lot, listening as a Carolina wren and late-staying gray catbird sang from the nearby brush.
Then the outing took a creepy turn.
We soon passed a sign for a haunted village in another park nearby. It was midday and the haunted village wasn’t going to open for another week, but we decided to drive through anyway to see if we could catch a glimpse of some of the spooky displays that would soon give visitors a delightful fright.
We didn’t see much other than a temporary black fence that hid the displays. It was fun, nonetheless, to imagine what may have lurked behind that fence.
As we exited the park, we immediately came upon a real-life haunted house. Of course, it wasn’t really haunted (not to my knowledge anyway), but the scene certainly made it appear so.
We noticed a few vultures flying around a neglected white house. Overgrown bushes and weeds overtook the yard and vines crept up the sides of the house. An old “for sale” sign was planted in the front yard telling us that the house was surely empty and had probably been so for a long time.
The scene grew more Halloween-like when we noticed a vulture land on the roof. With our attention now squarely on the flat roof, we noticed there were several vultures already perched on it. More vultures occupied a lower roof section above the porch. Yet another vulture perched on the top of a brick chimney and another perched on vent pipe.
A dead tree in the side yard also held several vultures. The scene was straight out of a horror movie and it seemed rather ironic that it was so close to a seasonal haunted Halloween village.
All the scene needed was a few stray black cats, a colony of bats flying out of the chimney, a strange person looking out the attic window and some eerie organ music in the background.
The flock was a mix of turkey and black vultures. Both species are increasing their population and expanding their range, belying the results of a recent study that indicated huge bird population losses over the last several decades. Black vultures are becoming noticeably more common in New England and turkey vultures are increasing in the region as well.
When they are soaring several hundred feet in the air, it is difficult to tell the two species apart. When you get a good look at them, however, there are many clear differences. The most obvious difference is that black vultures have black heads and turkey vultures have pink heads. Turkey vultures are also slightly larger with a wingspan upwards of 72 inches (6 feet), compared to a black vulture’s 65-inch span. Also, when looking at the underside of their wings, black vultures have white wing tips as if they are wearing gloves.
In reality, of course, the scene described previously wasn’t scary or spooky at all. The neighborhood cats and small dogs were safe as vultures eat carrion and very rarely hunt live prey. Many people think vultures are unsightly with their large bodies, bald heads and oversized nostrils, but I strongly disagree with that assessment. I appreciate their intimidating looks and size — a perfect complement to a haunted scene.
Katydids are one of summer’s most ubiquitous creatures, yet we rarely see them. We sure hear them, though.
That beautiful (to my ears anyway) sound you hear all evening and night during warm weather is a katydid, which rubs its wings together to make its namesake sound. I’ve heard people say they’ve heard cicadas all night, but what they are likely hearing are katydids. Cicada are usually heard during the day and have a different insect sound. Crickets also chirp at night, but katydid sounds can easily be differentiated.
Katydids are bright green and somewhat resemble a grasshopper. They also look like leaves, a handy attribute to have to fool predators.
If you are lucky enough to find one, check out its face. It looks (again, to me anyway) like a mini lobster.
The katydids we have in New England are about two inches long. The giant katydid of Malaysia grows to six inches, but is still completely harmless to humans.
Here’s an interesting scene I came across the other day during a walk at Deer Pond Farm, a property of Connecticut Audubon in Sherman, CT. Phoebes are one of the first migrants to arrive in New England in the spring and one of the last to leave in the fall.
Here is the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several New England publications.
Summer is hanging on, if only by a thread.
It’s always fun to see the nutty people who refuse to dig into their long-dormant jeans pile and insist on wearing shorts even when the temperature dips into the 40s. I see one of those yokels every time I walk past a mirror.
In the natural world, some flowers are still putting on a show, but it’s mostly the late bloomers such as goldenrod and asters. Some, but not many, traditional summer bloomers are toughing it out, but store-bought mums are the most commonly seen flowers these days.
The other day I walked past a pollinator garden and a monarch caterpillar stuck out like a sore thumb on the top of a milkweed plant. I hope the caterpillar does what it has to do quickly before the prolonged deep freezes come. It also made me think of all the fields that have been cut down already and I wonder how many monarch caterpillars lost their homes because of it.
Eastern phoebes, which are one of our first migrants to appear in spring with their late March arrivals, are still seen from time to time. I saw a few perched over a pond and bobbing their tails last week. The tangle of brush a few yards away from the pond was teeming with white-throated sparrows, however; a sure sign of fall and pending winter.
I had another exciting reminder of summer during a recent camping trip I took with some long-time friends. We were having breakfast at the picnic table when Wayne pointed to a distant snag and asked: “Is that a hawk or what?”
We grabbed the binoculars and trained them on an osprey eating a fish. We closed in on the dead tree for a closer look and noticed the bird was eating a fair-sized catfish. No blackened seasoning was necessary as the “fish hawk” tore through the skin and into the meat of the fish. Anyone who has ever caught a catfish knows how tough that skin is. The osprey didn’t struggle in the least.
I attended a presentation last week by Alan Poole, the author of two books on osprey. His latest book is “Ospreys: The Revival of a Global Raptor.”
Poole noted interestingly that an osprey has self-sharpening talons. The hard upper part of the talon, or claw, grows at a faster rate than the softer under part of the talon, leaving the large bird of prey with sharp claws at all times.
The osprey we watched did not push the timetable too far, but most ospreys in New England and nearby states have started their journey south by the end of September. Ospreys are not like most hawks and eagles whereby some individuals remain north throughout winter. All ospreys go south so to see one in October is a nice treat for a birdwatcher.
Poole noted that, while ospreys do mate for life, they go on separate migratory journeys.
Much of Poole’s presentation focused on the amazing comeback of the osprey population. After being nearly wiped out in the 1950s due to heavy pesticide use, the osprey has made a remarkable comeback and is now flourishing in North America and northern Europe, as well as on their winter grounds in South America and Africa.
The population turnaround is welcomed news considering the study released a few weeks ago that shows that North America has lost 29 percent of its birds in the last 50 years.
Poole concluded his presentation with this: “Ospreys are a good example that we can get things right if we pay attention and get organized.