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Archive for July, 2009

The New York Times recently ran a story on pets on planes, specifically the hassle and expense. It will come as no surprise to dog and cat people that they were overwhelmed with people complaining that animals just shouldn’t be allowed on planes at all. The issue is inevitably claimed to be allergies, but once again it seems more cultural than scientific.

Any reasonable dog person would be happy to accommodate one of the rare people who have severe dog allergies. But I won’t accommodate any one else’s irrational fears or cultural biases.

I’ve got severe allergies myself, but I am deeply suspicious of claims of being allergic to dogs. First off, the incidence of allergies to dogs is much rarer than it is to cats. Second, I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone claim they were allergic to something, but it turns out it’s just a hunch. Unless you’ve had a RAST test, where they poke little anti-bodies in your arm, don’t claim that you’re allergic to something. I dated a guy who grew up thinking his brother was allergic to dogs. Turns out his mom made it up because she didn’t like dogs. But the aversion to dogs–as well as the allergy excuse–is now passed down to a new generation in the family.

The complaints are more about dogs on planes instead of cats, which is peculiar because cats cause so many more allergies. Any dog sitting in a cabin of a plane is under 20 pounds and on some airlines under 15 pounds. That’s not a lot of dog to be allergic to.

If we’re going to be rational about animals on planes, then let’s just have people be required to bathe their dog or cat within 48 hours of a flight. Therapy dogs generally have to do that before they visit a hospital. Yeah, it’s huge nuisance, but dog owners already have to haul themselves to the vet right before a trip, too.

Second, if we’re really dealing with allergies, then there should be no problem with poodles or any of the other breeds documented to be hypo-allergenic flying in the cabin no matter what their size. The president’s Portuguese Water Dog Bo was selected not to cause allergies in the White House; that ought to be good enough for a Continental flight to Tampa.

One angry pet-hater wrote in with her fantasy of fining dog owners for every bark or growl or peeing in their crate. Sounds fine, as long I as I can exact a fee from every participant in an inane business meeting or flirtation among strangers I have to listen to, for every time someone slams their seat back or is befuddled by where to put their luggage. A toy dog travelling is at the bottom of my list of airline complaints. If you’re afraid of a 15-pound lhasa apso growling, I really can’t be responsible for your comfort.

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Humpback photo courtesy of Ruben Ayala, taken on Seven Seas Whale Watching based out of Gloucester, MA, in Sept., 2006.
Great Britain just got through with another Whale Week, with sightings of an impressive eight species of cetaceans–dolphins and whales. Minke and humpback whales visited Scotland. Bottlenose dolphins ventured farther south than ever; common dolphins pushed north. The event, sponsored by BG Group, so far only extends to the British Isles, but it would be great to see it expanded worldwide.

Right about now is the peak season for seeing blue whales–the largest creature on earth, ever–in one of their largest concentrations, off Santa Barbara, right outside Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Chapter of the American Cetacean Society is having its annual blue whale trip this Saturday. The southern California whale watching industry is geared more towards the spectacle of gray whales migrating up and down the coast in spring and winter. But Santa Barbara’s Condor Cruises has $98 4.5 hour trips to where the blue whales and calves like to feed. Up the coast in central California, Monterey Bay Whale Watch goes out all year.

The trouble with an international Whale Watch Week would be that the peak season is different on migration routes all over the world. Oregon’s Whale Watching Spoken Here has two big gray whale weeks a year: Christmas week and March 20-27. Still, summer is great time to see whales in lots of places. Cape Cod, the best whale watching spot on the East Coast, has a season from roughly July to September. Hawaii is year-round (though humpbacks are winter) and whale watch week is a fun way to let people know. We’ve certainly all caught on to Shark Week as the time to see sharks on the Discovery Channel (which starts Sunday). Why not whales in the water?

Want to go look for dolphins?

Want to see some whales? Here are some of the best places.

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I’m in my third week of antibiotics after returning from a trip from New Hampshire with a textbook bullseye surrounding a tick bite. Which animal should I blame?

The New York Times let five biologists and entomologists debate the issue. The first guy out, Thomas Mather, professor of public health entomology, gave the answer that has become commonly lore: deer. The premise: Deer populations have risen along with lyme disease cases.

But then other scientists basically cast some reasonable doubt on the case against the deer. Ixodes scapularis, commonly known as deer ticks, bear ticks or black-legged ticks, can pick up the bacteria that causes lyme disease from a whole range of animals, not just its namesake. The American Lyme Disease Foundation calls deer this species’ “preferred host” but notes that mice are the primary carriers of the disease, which can also be spread via birds, dogs, cats, horses, squirrels and other small mammals.

Richard S. Ostfeld, of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, notes that the incidence of lyme disease and deer don’t correspond, but that acorn crops (which feed white-footed mice) do. William L. Krinsky, entomologist at Yale’s Peabody Museum, says we don’t have enough data to understand how much blame rodents and deer should get.

Interestingly, two species come out as heroes. Bard biology professor Felicia Keesing cites the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) as the under appreciated fighter of lyme disease; these guys attract and kill ticks by the thousands. Ostfeld gives some credit to owl, who eat the mice, who carry the disease.
Why is it important which species is to blame? Because when people think deer are to blame, they want to get rid of them. I have a reasonable, educated friend who supports getting rid of deer on Long Island because she’s afraid of lyme disease. Lyme disease–along with car crashes and eaten gardens, are used to drum up support for deer hunts. If white-tailed deer had any kind of PR muscle, they’d follow the example of pig farmers after the outbreak of swine flu–sorry H1N1–and lobby for changing the deer tick’s name.

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Robert DeCandido, PhD, a bird biologist who lively tours of owls and other avians in Central Park, has agreed to let me run his newsletter here. Birding Bob is always full of great information not only about New York City birds, but wildlife in general.
Photo courtesy of Flickr’s Bryce Bradford
Last week’s history of West Nile disease in NYC (1999-2009) prompted a few emails – folks filling in the consequences of this Asian disease post 1999. What has changed in the local environment in the last decade? Most noticeably, the American Crow population has not rebounded to pre-1999 levels, especially during the breeding season. And wintering populations of 50 or more crows in one park are unusual. Gone are the days when one could find a Great Horned Owl in many of NYCs (larger) parks by simply following the cacophony of crows surrounding the owls.

And during this same time frame, as the crows have precipitously declined as residents in NYC, the population of Red-tailed Hawks as breeders has increased exponentially. Is this simply correlation (two un-related events occurring simultaneously) or causation? Time may tell

A second noticeable change has been the decline in certain insect species – especially Tiger Swallowtail butterflies which were once common in our area in summer. There are other changes, such as a severe decline in Ring-necked Pheasants in our parks – these are verging on extinction locally…but tracing the decline of Asian pheasants to West Nile is more difficult – it might be mere correlation.

Finally, other insect species such as certain wasps that laid their eggs on the leaves of cherry trees have declined as well…but most people would not notice these even if they disappeared from our area completely.

In our Bronx neighborhood, one exotic bird species continues to increase, and is now nesting on at least a few Bronx streets. We even have them feeding in our pear trees in our yard each July-August: And while we are at it, another (native) bird has made a remarkable comeback as a breeding species since the late 1990s, particularly in Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx:
Our historical reports this week highlight a breeding pair of American Coots in Queens (2000); 70+ Cormorants in the Reservoir of Central Park (28 July 1999); and the first record of breeding Blue-grey Gnatcatchers in New York City at Pelham Bay Park (27 July 1999). Debs and I have seen families of Gnatcatchers there in July since 1999 – and Gnatcatchers have bred in at least one other NYC park (Prospect Park in Brooklyn, circa 2007). And to show that good things can still be found nearby, we include two news reports about dolphins in the Long Island Sound in late June 2009 (in Queens and the Bronx).
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Good! Here are the bird walks for this week ($5):

1. Friday, July 31st: $5. Central Park – Meet at Conservatory Garden (105th street and 5th Ave.) at 9am.

x. Saturday, August 1st: No BIRD WALK
2. Sunday, August 2nd: 9:00 amCentral Park – Meet at the usual location: the Dock on Turtle Pond at 9 am. $5.
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The fine print: Our summer walks on Sundays meet at the Dock on Turtle Pond (approximately 79th street in the middle of the park). Look for Belvedere Castle and you have found Turtle Pond. Bathrooms are located at the adjacent Delacorte Theater (Shakespeare in the Park) – and are nice. We end our weekend Central Park walks at the Boathouse at about noon. On Fridays, we meet at 9am at Conservatory Garden, 105th street and 5th Avenue (just inside the main gates). There are bathrooms open year-round at Conservatory Garden, and that is good. Easiest way to get there by subway is to take the #2 or #3 train to 110th street and Central Park north. Then walk south along the east side until you reach Conservatory Garden. You can also take the #6 train to Lexington Avenue and 103rd street. Walk west for three blocks and then north by two. Finally, buses run up Madison Avenue regularly too. If you need better directions, just email or call (718-828-8262) – especially for how to get to the meeting location of the Saturday walks.

Most bird walks last about two to three hours in Summer, but feel free to leave at anytime, we won’t take it personally. We have an extra pair or two of binoculars to rent, so if you want to rent a pair, just call or email before the walk to let us know. Also, if you are thinking of purchasing new binoculars, ask us – we probably have used them, and we will let you know how to get them for the best price.———————————————————————————————
Here is what we saw last week (selected highlights) with some anecdotal notes and observations. Not all species we saw are reported here – we list the best:

Friday, July 24th (North End Central Park) – Lately winds have been more southerly, with seasonable temperatures (low to mid 80s) and humidity levels. Migrants, which drift to our area on northwest winds, have not been as common in the latter half of July as we would hope. Nevertheless, with an intrepid crew of birders including at least two NYC school teachers, we set off to find some lost migrants in the north end of the park. Our best luck was with a bird I have seen in migration at night atop the Empire State Building (in October!) – a Belted (Eastern) Kingfisher was our best find – it flew past us in the woodlands on the north side of the “Loch.” We thought we heard it at a distance, and a small nudge from the iPod (kingfisher call) immediately brought the bird to us – and it continued on its way southwest through the woods. By the way, Belted Kingfishers bred in Pelham Nay Park in the Bronx until the mid-1980s…These days they are rather uncommon migrants in our area, though 1-2 may take up residence in Central Park for several days to weeks in spring and then again beginning in late summer, but not every year. Also today we tracked down a pair of Carolina Wrens at the north end…This is very interesting to us: each year beginning in late July, there is a dispersal of Carolina Wrens into our area (perhaps even from other city parks) – and we believe some of them begin nesting in Central Park in August. We are still investigating this, and will have more to report in the coming weeks as we watch this pair at the north end. Finally, no sign of The Hairy Woodpecker pair today, nor the lone White-breasted Nuthatch we had been seeing near the Blockhouse. Our best wishes to Emily Driscoll who is off to Iceland (and Grad School at NYU in film – science documentary.

Sunday, July 26th (Central Park, Ramble area) – With the hope of late summer migrants, off to the Ramble we went. For quite a while we had to be content with a Green Heron seen at Turtle Pond by all, and a House Wren seen by two. From the terrace of Belvedere Castle we spotted not one but two flocks of migrating Red-winged Blackbirds/Common Grackles (mixed) and a female Wood Duck (Carinne Mitchell – off to Cape Cod!) in Turtle Pond. From there we headed to the Ramble in the hopes of finding one of the recently released Eastern Screech-owls (no luck but we are not worried); instead we tracked down some migrants, all in the same area: The Point. From the rocky overlook near the Oven, we pulled in two Northern Waterthrushes (Thanks Sandra Critelli), and a few House Finches feeding on the last of some Mulberries. At the end of the Point, we pulled in another Northern Waterthrush and a Yellow Warbler, a Warbling Vireo, and surprisingly, a pair of very moulty Black-capped Chickadees. At Warbler Rock, we found a just fledged Grey Catbird, and learned that the Red-bellied Woodpeckers are not as aggressive toward intruders now than they were just 2-3 weeks ago. As per the suggestion for Regina Alvarez, we looked for and found a saprophytic native wildflower that grows on its own in Central Park: Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora). There were many clumps of this all-white plant that gets its nutrients not from photosynthesis but rather, directly from the roots of trees, particularly oaks on whose roots it likes to grow. Look for it in the area of the bird feeders. Finally, in prior years, we would recommend viewers to head to Turtle Pond at night to see this bird. foraging along the surface for fish. This year the pond is covered with Duckweed (Lemna minor), the smallest flowering plant in the world. Instead the skimmers have shifted their nocturnal foraging to The Model Boat Pond and The Reservoir….Though you can see them until about 9am on foggy mornings there too.

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Photo of Moko earlier this year courtesy of Chris & Lara Pawluk
Moko, a bottlenose dolphin who lives off Mahia Beach, New Zealand, is famous for being friendly to people in the water. But Sunday, she nearly loved a visitor to death. “We were playing around for a while but then when I wanted to go back in, he just wanted to keep playing. I became exhausted and started to panic,” the woman told the BBC. When she screamed, a local bar owner came out in a dinghy to rescue her.

Moko is what’s known as a “lone dolphin,” a rare but well-documented kind of dolphin that seems to want to hang out with people. Since it’s winter in New Zealand now, speculation is that she just got lonely because there aren’t as many people in the water.

The standard criticism of people swimming with wild dolphins is that dolphins get annoyed or injured. But, even Project Jonah chief executive Kimberly Muncaster, who has warned people to keep their distance from the chummy 3-year-old dolphin, acknowledged that Moko actively seeks out people’s attention. “Moko has undoubtedly captured the hearts of Kiwis, but she is in danger of getting hurt if she isn’t treated with respect, and those seeking to get close to her are also putting themselves at risk,” Muncaster warned last year.

The woman, who was too embarrassed to give her name, says Moko wasn’t trying to hurt her. “I’ve spent quite a bit of time swimming with Moko and I’m a strong swimmer so I wasn’t worried at first,” she said.

Moko has been hanging around Mahia Beach for about a year and half, dragging in tourists–whiles sometimes dragging buoys out to sea for sport. “She follows boats in and out of the bay and plays havoc with my cray pots. She bunts the buoys and drags the pots together, tangling them,” says Mahia local Bill Shortt. Moko also gives people presents of fish. She gained worldwide fame for saving two pygmy sperm whales.

Marine Biologist Ingrid Visser says Moko has scars from a boat propeller and fish hook and that has been the demise of many other “lone dolphins.” “In some areas of the world these ‘lone’ dolphins have inhabited the area for many years,” he told the Gisborne Herald. “However, it is sad to note that of the nearly 30 individual ‘lone’ dolphins which have been well documented from around the world, at least 14 have been injured or even killed as a result of interacting closely with humans.”

Seems like Moko would stand a better chance against boats and fishing lines in the harbor she knows so well. I hope this incident gets more people to spend some time with her so she doesn’t get lonely. It seems like a wonderful animal tourism opportunity: come see Moko, the friendly dolphin, in the low season, when she really, really wants your company.

Want to see a dolphin yourself? Here’s a map I’m putting together of some (mostly US) places?
Got a suggestion for another one? Send it here.

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Plum Island–New York’s answer to Area 51–will live on a bit longer. The secretive federal animal research lab off the north fork of Long Island got a bit of a reprieve when Congress decided not to fund its replacement in Kansas, the Suffolk Times reports.

The clandestine, off-limits island, once the home of classified bio-weapons testing, is the kind of place only a Dick Cheney could love. Well, him and Hannibal Lecter; the Silence of the Lambs serial killer is offered a week’s annual vacation at the island lab. “Charming,” he says, but later refers to it as “Anthrax Island.”

The whole range of research done there may never be quite public, but it has worried mainland locals, especially after an outbreak of foot and mouth disease and a hurricane power outage (since the island holds stores of some pretty nasty diseases.) Lab 257 (named after the main building), a book by Michael Carroll, claimed secretive, shoddy work at the lab was tied to the original lyme disease and other outbreaks, which the military shrugged off as “fringe” theories. Most of the interest is probably because we can’t visit. But we can see the complex from Orient Point or the ferry to Connecticut.

The problem with the lab now is that some think it’s too small to handle modern work and that hoof and mouth program should move to Kansas. But the GAO isn’t too sure about moving the lab to the mainland, especially the middle of livestock country.

Speculation on what would happen after it closed, center on safer more boring kinds of green energy labs, a wind farm or luxury properties, according to the Times. I’d rather see it as a wildlife refuge, but if it follows the path of the decommissioned Governor’s Island, it’ll pretty much do nothing for a long time while debate plans.

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A decade ago when biologist Robert DeCandido, PhD wanted to reintroduced Eastern Screech Owls to Central Park, birders argued over whether they would face a grim death or be so successful they’d devour all the songbirds. Fast forward 11 years and now the tiny owls have quietly established a population up in the North Woods. So that when wildlife rehabber (and fireman) Bobby Horvath released five screech owls Saturday, everyone had come around to welcoming the three gray juveniles and two reds (one adult and one juvenile).

Local bloggers like Gothamist and fantastic wildlife photographer Bruce Yolton’s Urban Hawks were just thrilled.

(Photo of Dr. Robert “Birding Bob” DeCandido and a the adult red owl courtesy of bird photographer Deborah Allen)

DeCandido, better known as Birding Bob, says he saw the two youngest owls hanging out together on Sunday. None of the birds were related and they were of different ages, but he would still expect to see some sticking together, at least for a while. Yolton says that the owls at least won’t face the threat of great-horned owls that live on Long Island. DeCandido points out that there aren’t too many competitors of the same species in the park–and that now the army of wildlife photographers will be able to track them.

DeCandido leads tours in the park so New Yorkers can get a glimpse of the park’s owl residents. (I’ve gone on a few and they’re great–even when you don’t get to see the owls.)

Still, he says, most aren’t going to make it. People always underestimate how few animals surivive in the wild. The mortality rate for Eastern Screech Owls raised by their parents is 80%. And it’s even worse for those raised by humans and released in the park: 89%. So, that’s why DeCandido wants to release as many as possible. In 2002, when he still worked for the parks department, he released 33. You never know which will succeed and breed. One red-phased (that is, red-colored) one released last fall by Horvath already mated.

The park and their upbringing make it harder for the owls–which were, of course, once native to Manhattan and the park. “From my perspective as biologist, once they have enough food, they need sufficient territory with enough tree cavities,” DeCandido says. The problem arises when they want to nest and gray squirrels are poking their heads in–and possibly eating eggs. “The other wild card is raccoons,” he says. “We don’t know what their effect is on nesting.”

(Photo of a red-phase Eastern Screech owl in Central park in 2008 by Flickr’s Robert rbs10025)

The young ones are also a bit surprised by all the songbirds mobbing them, he says. They should just sit still, back against a trunk. Instead they get spooked and fly–making more of a commotion and easier for the other birds to knock them down. But, they’re learning.

Go on a tour with Birding Bob
Find more animals in New York City
See more raptors

Video

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