Archive for August, 2009

photo courtesy of Cats 2007
Australians this week were outraged when they realized the Taronga Zoo in Dubbo, NSW, is selling off blackbuck antelopes, which are endangered in their native India, to canned hunting ranches. Meanwhile, these kind of black buck hunts go on non-stop in Texas and nobody cares.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Bob McComb, owner of the Dongadale Deer Park and Stud, bought 24 blackbuck antelope from the zoo for between AU$160 and $300 (US$130 – $250). (Later the zoo admitted selling 84 animals to a bunch of these hunt clubs. Sure seems like the zoo was letting them breed to get cute babies to attract visitors.) The deal is he can only breed the ones he got from the zoo, but he’ll “hunt” their offspring. He’s confident he’ll be able to get approval to do it, then charge thousands of dollars per kill.
Australians were suitably taken aback. They called for the zoo’s animal welfare chief to quit. And New South Wales Premier Nathan Rees said No, he wasn’t going to suddenly allow these widely-ridiculed hunting ranches–even though it’ll make it hard to corral conservatives on other issues.
India sent Bollywood star Salman Khan to jail for shooting one of these lanky animals. The eight year court case may now be a movie. Wildlife preserves like the ABOHAR in Punjab are carefully coaxing their numbers up. Nature worshipping Bishnois protect them.

Meanwhile, back on the ranch in Texas, canned hunting is a big business. Even though real hunters looked down on the kind of weasels who shoot caged animals, then boastfully hang their heads on a wall, Texas is fine with it.
The Texas Hunt Lodge–one of many in the state–lets these brave men choose whether to stalk these antelope or hunt them from a blind, then use a bow, rifle, handgun or old fashioned black powder weapon. They’ll even let them play safari. The price: $1,750 or $3,000, depending on whether the horns qualify as a mere trophy (about 18 inches) or a “record”–20 inches or more.
How did we end up with such different attitudes toward these antelopes? For starters there are now nearly as many blackbucks on ranches in Texas and Argentina as there are living in the wild in India (50,000.) India declares them endangered (but even some there contemplate hunting schemes because they eat a lot of sorghum crops.) Officially, IUCN calls these Antilope cervicapra “near threatened.” That is, not officially endangered.

The black buck on the Edwards Plateau in Texas are considered exotic. Under wildlife laws here, that means they don’t even count as wildlife.

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Photo of a shark on a South African tour courtesy of David Salvatori on Flickr.
Are sharks suddenly evolving into man-eaters?!
60 Minutes worries they are. Last night they updated a story on shark tourism, which they blame for sharks “becoming more dangerous.”

Their proof? When they did the story in 2005, there had been six attacks off South Africa in the previous two years, three fatal. Before that Bob Simon declares shark attacks “virtually unheard of here.” Really?

Look, I know the game. Reporters always have to justify a story with a news peg. But shark attacks deaths aren’t one of those nebulous trends like people wearing straw hats; we know exactly how many shark attacks and deaths there are because the Global Shark Attack File keeps track.

The file doesn’t show any big increase in South Africa or the world. The file shows that there was about one fatal shark attack per year in South Africa since the early 1980s. Since 60 Minutes reported on this supposed surge in shark attacks in 2005? There have been three confirmed deaths off South Africa (and two deaths where sharks might have been involved). In other words, shark deaths have been following the same pattern for three decades: about one death a year off South Africa. And worldwide it’s about five a year.

You know what would’ve been a smart update? How about the study out just last month that tours off Hawaii aren’t really effecting shark behavior?

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The Chinese government now blames outbreak of pneumonic plague that killed 3 people in central Qinghai province on a dog. If I were a Chinese dog, I’d be going into hiding about now.

Beijing has a habit of mass dog culls to fix (or at least assuage anger over) health problems. In 2006, government workers beat 50,000 dogs to death in the streets after they were blamed for causing three deaths from rabies. Despite world outrage and nausea, the practice continues. In May another 20,000 dogs were brutally dispatched, some on film.

Professor Wang Hu director of the Qinghai disease control bureau told Xinhua that the first to die, a 32-year-old herdsman, had just buried his dog, who might have gotten plague from a marmot he ate.

That may all be true, but I’d bet that Beijing’s desire to cast blame and their hostility to dogs may play a role. There are a couple problems with the theory. Dogs can get plague, but they usually don’t get that sick from it. Pneumonic plague doesn’t need to be spread by fleas and blood like bubonic plague; pneumonic plague is airborne.

Unless there are already undercover cameras in that isolated town like there were at the May dog slaughter, we probably won’t find out how many dogs they kill over this.

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SHARK WEEK, which had 29 million viewers last year, is becoming some kind of international holiday. It’s not just the Discovery Channel celebrating across the board with MythBusters‘ shark experiments and a reliving of Mike Rowe’s shark Dirty Jobs. But now everyone’s jumping on the SHARK WEEK bandwagon. Even the other networks.

Sharks Everywhere
Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader? (FOX) features a shark attack victim. Smithsonian Channel has a show on therapy for shark attack victims. The Early Show (CBS) is featuring a shark. My local PBS station had a show on a guy “with an unusual relationship with a shark.” Showtime has a shark movie.

Win a Dream Date with a Shark Researcher!
The Shark Research Institute is auctioning off lunches with shark researchers around the globe, starting at $25–plus you pick up the tab for lunch. Chris “Air Jaws” Fallows is the hottie so far, but that’s probably because he’s throwing in a shark tour.

Dueling Petitions.
Think Shark Week is too sensational and bloody? Sign this petition of concerned scientists, surfers and other shark lovers.
Want more gore 24/7? Then this petition is for you.
Want Spain to stop finning sharks? Sign here.

European Shark Week
Just as you would expect from Europe, their Shark Week (Oct. 10-18, 2009) is short on melodrama and long on serious conservation. The Shark Alliance is asking Spain to stop chopping fins off live sharks and throwing the fish back to the ocean to bleed to death.

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Biologist Robert DeCandido, PhD, leads fun tours of wildlife in Central Park (along with Deb Allen). He’s let us publish his notes from the week and from NYC birding history.

We have added two Eastern Screech-owl walks in Central Park this week – details are below. And for those of you in the Bronx on Wednesday evening, 5 August, Bob will be doing a slide-talk on the 11 owl species that have been found in NYC (including the 6 species have bred here; overall 12 owl species occur in New York State) – at the Bartow-Pell Mansion in the Bronx (Pelham Bay Park) at 7:30pm. Following the talk there will be an owl walk on the grounds…all of this for $5 adults and $3 for kids. More details:

This week the Bird Walk announcements takes a summer foray to the cooler parts of our area – coastal Queens and Brooklyn to the far far east end of the Long Island Sound.

We feature historical notes about nesting Prairie Horned Larks (Queens); breeding Skylarks and September migrant Turkey Vultures (Brooklyn); and a wonderful tale of the Man-O’-War Bird on Gardiner’s Island (Suffolk County). These were made between 1857-1886.

Our feature (summer) bird photos this week also come from a cooler place: the south shore of Nassau County – next to the ocean: Black skimmer Common tern Pair of black skimmers
Good! Here are the bird walks for this week ($5):

1. Thursday evening, August 6th: $5. Owls and Bats of Central Park (Ramble) – meet at The Boathouse at 7:45pm. (The Boathouse is approximately 73rd street and the East Drive, along the lake in Central Park – if you need better directions, just email me.)

2. Friday, August 7th: $5. Central Park – Meet at Conservatory Garden (105th street and 5th Ave.) at 9am.

x. Saturday, August 8th: No BIRD WALK
3. Sunday, August 9th: 9:00 amCentral Park – Meet at the usual location: the Dock on Turtle Pond at 9 am. $5.

4. Monday evening, August 10th: $5. Owls and Bats of Central Park (The North Woods) – meet at 5th Ave and 106th street at 7:45pm. (The meeting location is one block north of Conservatory Gardens – if you need better directions, just email me.)

Detailed Directions

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 31st (North End Central Park) – thanks to Art and Emily Driscoll, the 2-3 Northern Waterthrushes did not escape detection today despite the early rains. The deluge seems to have inspired a number of electric red Crayfish to take a walk along the paths of the Harlem Meer…These “crawdads” would be an epicurean delight in at least one southern city – here, we just watch and photograph them.

Sunday, August 2nd (Central Park, Ramble area) – The heavens work in strange ways. It rained today from about 8:30am until 9:30am – long enough to keep most everyone at home. However, there were some intrepid bird watchers about (including Art, David and Lou; though we did hear, but not see Sandra along with Tom and Jack), and we did find the first Black-and-white Warblers of the autumn migration (both a male and a female). And we also likely found an Eastern Screech-owl hiding location since several Blue Jays were quite upset – unfortunately the leaves of the tree above us were so thick we had no way of seeing into the green mansion. Other highlights today included a Green Heron…and the rain.
Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) — Since making my previous record [Auk, 1886, Vol. III, p. 439] on this species I have secured several others through the kindness of Mr. Alfred Marshall, an Associate Member of the Union. The records were all made at the extreme southwestern portion of the Island, Mr. Marshall residing in Flatbush, Kings Co. The following is a copy of his notes: “September 5, 1877, Mr. Johnston says, ‘The flagman on the Manhattan Beach R. R., at the Parkville crossing, saw a large bird flying about six feet from the ground, and as it flew by succeeded in stunning it with a stone. He afterward saw it and found it to be a Turkey Vulture in splendid condition.’ June 9, 1885, Mr. Johnston also saw two flying over his residence at Parkville, and again on August 26th, of the same year, he saw another. July 9, 1886, he saw still another, being pursued by a Crow. The Vulture mounted to a great height, the Crow following. In May, 1885, I saw one, and May 16th, the following year, I saw another. It was sitting on the top of a dead tree near Ocean Avenue, Greenfield, Kings Co. Two or three wagons drove by while I was watching the bird, but it did not fly, so I crept under the tree to get a good view of it. After watching it for ten minutes, I threw a stone to start it, but it did not fly until I hit the limb it was sitting on; then it flew to another tree about fifty yards off and commenced cleaning its feathers. It was about 5 a.m. when I saw the bird first. I think it had been eating and had gorged itself. These are all the notes I can collect, and I believe they cover the visits of this Vulture in our locality for the past decade.” [Ed. note: Turkey Vultures have recently bred in New York City.]

Skylark (Alauda arvensis). — Late in June, 1857, I received a request from Dr, C. Hart Merriam to investigate a statement made in a New York paper, that “Skylarks are abundant on Long Island, at Flatbush and from that place down, easterly through a stretch of land extending to Flatlands, and thence around and about the town of Flatlands.” I referred the request to Mr. Alfred Marshall, who resides at Flatbush and is well acquainted with the locality. Within a few days (July 2) he wrote that he had secured two birds which he supposed were Skylarks. They were forwarded to Dr. Merriam who pronounced them “unquestionably the true European Skylark (Alauda arvensis).” Subsequently, Mr. Marshall informed me that he found the Skylarks in the long-grass fields, and that they were quite plenty. Those secured were young birds. On the 12th of July he saw a great many, all adults, and singing. He also saw one carrying food in its mouth, and supposing it had young, he noted where it dropped into a piece of timothy grass. He was unable to find the nest then, but later, on the 14th, he was more successful, as he found it with five half-grown young. The nest was composed of grass and was placed in a depression in the ground, about two and one-half inches deep, and was hidden under a tuft of grass. The Skylarks remained until September 15th, on which date Mr. Marshall saw the last one. [Ed. note: Skylarks bred in Brooklyn until about 1913 – more than 50 years!]

Prairie Horned Lark (Otocoris alpestris praticola). — Mr. John Hendrickson, of Long Island City, Queens Co., has the honor of having secured the first specimen of this variety of the Horned Lark on Long Island. July 31st, 1886, he shot one near his home. His brother, Mr. W. F. Hendrickson, when writing to me about it, asked if it was not early in the season for a Shore Lark to be found, and also stated that the specimen was very small. Subsequently he sent it to me, but as I had no others to compare it with, I forwarded it to Dr. A. K. Fisher, at Washington, for comparison and identification. He replied to my inquiry as follows: “The specimen is Otocoris alpestris praticola. To make doubly sure, I had Mr. Ridgway examine it and he said there was no question but that it was praticola. I should not be surprised, if in a few years the bird would be a common breeder on Long Island.” September 14, 1887, the Messrs. Hendrickson sent to me in the flesh a Horned Lark which, from its immaturity, had evidently been bred on the Island, and consequently must be praticola.

Man-o’-War Bird (Fregata aquila). — The claim of this bird to be included in the fauna of Long Island has heretofore rested on the specimen captured by Capt. Brooks, in 1859, on Faulkner’s Island, Long Island Sound. After an interval of twenty-seven years (1886) another straggler from the tropics furnishes an additional record of extra-limital occurrence. In August, 1886, Messrs. Lucas and Brick wrote to me that they had just mounted a specimen of the Frigate Pelican for Mrs. John Lyon Gardiner, which had been shot on Gardiner’s Island. Subsequently I ascertained, on inquiry, that the bird was shot August 4, 1886, by Mr. Josiah P. Miller, the keeper of the lighthouse. His account of the capture of the specimen is as follows: “The Man-o’-War Bird which I shot a while ago, was, when I first discovered it, sitting on a piece of old wreck, about fifty rods distant from the lighthouse. I tried to get a shot at it, but it saw me before I was near enough, and flew off up the beach out of sight. It came back in about an hour and settled in the same place as before. This time I went on the opposite side of the beach and concealed myself in the grass. My daughter went toward the bird, when it flew directly over me, giving a splendid shot. It was alone, and is the only one of the kind that I ever saw in this part of the world. I have kept this light for twenty years.”

From: BIRD NOTES FROM LONG ISLAND, N.Y. by WILLIAM DUTCHER. (Read before the Linnaean Society of New York, 8 March 1888. [Ed. Note: The Great Snow Blizzard of New York City began three days after the reading of this paper.]

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What could be more scary than a shark? Well, even during SHARK WEEK, pretty much anything.

Sharks kill about five people a year worldwide. The Global Shark Attack File chronicles 4,374 attacks since 1845. (They range from that first report, out of Sri Lanka, “Shark bit him in half, carrying away the lower extremities” to the trivial July 24 incident in Spain where some guy cut his foot.)

Sharks are sexier but not deadlier than:

  • The water the shark is in is thousands of times more likely to kill you than the fish. In 2006 3,600 Americans drowned. Every year 260 toddlers drown in pools.
  • Guns–just the accidental discharges–killed 642 in 2006, according to the CDC.
  • 25 kids a year still suffocate in plastic bags, the Consumer Product Safety Commission says.
  • Upholstered furniture takes out 460 Americans annually (because it catches on fire.)
  • Extension cords kill 50 people a year in the United States (again, through fire.)

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