Archive for January, 2010

The New York City Parks Department’s first shot at a marine mammal tour from Coney Island yielded absolutely none of the hoped for seals, porpoises, dolphins or whales. But we were all shocked and delighted to see real Coney Island polar bears going into the water in bikinis on what turned out to be one of the coldest days of winter. their existence is well-documented on every cheesy local news, but I consider it a rarity to see one in person.

Our park ranger guides, Marissa and Andy, couldn’t have been more enthusiastic or knew more about what we might hope to see. They had us carefully watch a cluster of birds feeding on the surface to see if we saw any seal heads pop up. Andy told us about the loons and Brant Geese (Branta bernicla) wading by the polar bears. Marissa told us stories about dolphins she’s seen regularly patrolling east to west off the Rockaways. She told us about the time a seal hauled out on Coney Island and helpful New Yorkers dragged it back to sea–twice–before realizing it just wanted to sit on the sand.

 Wildlife watchers know there are no guarantees in this business. So several of us consoled ourselves with another Coney Island rarity: pizza. Maybe we’ll try one of the other tours to see seals around NYC.

Where to See Seals

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Unbeknownst to New Yorkers, seals have been hanging around the harbor for ages. For the first time the Parks Department is going to try to show them off a marine mammal tour of Coney Island today. (And next week there’ll be a walk through Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx). If Parks is trying to convince New Yorkers seals are out there, it’s a risky move: you can’t be sure when they’ll show up.

But the Coney Island walk is billed as marine mammals. The most likely sighting is a porpoise, says a ranger I talked to. For seals, we could see harbor, harp, gray  or even ring seals. There’s also a chance of dolphins (common, white-sided) and whale (fin, minke or humpback). This season seals have been spotted in the Rockaways and the Bronx.

There are other, more reliable ways to see seals around New York City. Though I probably won’t be able to resist the chance to look for them someplace a subway ride away.

  • CRESLI (Coastal Research and Education Center of Long Island) has seal walks and boat tours on Montauk and a neat map of where you might see seals around Long Island.
  • Seals also visit Sandy Hook in New Jersey from December to March.
  • New York City Audubon has a cruise by a bunch of island on a water taxi.
  • SKSA does kayak tours (wet or dry-suit required) on Long Island.

Where to See Seals

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We’re heard plenty about birds hitting planes since the USAIR crash into the Hudson last year. But what about birds hit by planes? An Illinois red-tailed hawk somehow got hit by a crashing private plane (or its fireball), caught fire and survived. Or at least that’s the going theory of the Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, which took in the singed bird.

Tragically two men in their 30s died in the crash in Sugar Grove. But four people, including two kids, in a very close house survived.

Then rescuers found the bird with all its feathers burned off. They figure it’s a red-tailed hawk–by far the most common hawk–and a female, the bigger of the species. But that’s just a guess, the center’s blog say:

Burned beyond positive species identification, Phoenix was recovered by Kane County Animal Control and was promptly transferred to Flint Creek Wildlife for emergency care. Since that time four nights ago, she has been receiving around-the-clock care for her injuries.

“When I saw the bird, I was shocked,” said Dawn Keller, the center’s executive director.  “This was nothing like I’ve ever seen. It had to have been engulfed.” She only has down left and has burnt feet, throat and eyelids. Still the center will work to release her if she is able. Otherwise “Phoenix” will become an education bird.

Keller had to explain to the local media that Phoenix was not guilty of causing the crash. “The crash happened after dark, which means she was already sleeping for the night. If she got sucked into the propeller or engine, she’d be dead. She was just an innocent bystander…,” Keller told the Beacon News.

Just last month the center rescued another raptor in a transportation-related mishap. A Ferruginous hawk (Buteo regalis)  rode thousands of miles on a freight train out of its range in western Canada before it was finally discovered stuck in the train’s grill in Franklin Park, suburban Chicago.

Donate to Flint Creek

Where to see Hawks and Eagles

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People may have heard of watching orcas off San Juan Islands,  but Donna Sandstrom wants everyone to realize whales are all over the coastal waters of Washington State, including the Salish Sea. For the last two years she’s been working with seven government groups pulling together The Whale Trail, 15 spots where people can see whales from the shore.

Aside from Lime Kiln Point State Park, which bills itself as the best shore-based whale-watching site in the whole world, the Whale Trail reaches up to Vancouver and down to coastal La Push, where the Quileute Nation welcomes the gray whales when they return from their migration to Mexico.

“They could go extinct in 100 years and that’s heartbreaking to me,” she says. “We are right at the intersection of whether they make it or not.” Yet down the coast from the San Juans people in her native Seattle are largely oblivious to the presence of killer whales, Orcinus orca right outside their doors. “It always makes me a little sad that people are surprised whales are here,” she says.

Now they’ll be able to look up public places where they can see whales from public land–which means the viewing is free for people, environmentally low impact and no hassle for whales. Tour operators, sensing the project will just spur more interest, even helped set it up. Behavioral biologist and author Toni Frohoff, has called land-based whale watching “the ideal form,” noting that it works so well in the area “because it gets so deep right off” the shore.

Sandstrom pulled together what she calls a dream team of area whale experts, many of whom she met when they cooperated to rescue Springer, a calf separated from her mother. They pulled together a list of places people could visit where there was a “reasonable chance of viewing whales” at least part of the year.

All of the invited spots said yes. The idea of organizing the spots “seems like its latent in the air,” she says. Oregon has organized Whale Spoken Here sites along its coast. Labrador and Newfoundland provide a neat map of boat and shore-based sites. But those were largely government projects that had tourism in mind. Sandstrom’s project is more focused on the community–getting people to enjoy and understand their wildlife. “To me it’s all about local community,” she says. “These are communities who want to be part of this.”

Each spot will get signs detailing what people can expect to see in the area and when. The focus is on killer whales, but gray whales, seals and sea lions won’t be neglected. Eventually they’d like to train volunteers in each spot.  

The inspiration was the Mission Bell trail in her native California, but the resulting Whale Trail is, I think, even better. The whales are alive and the whale trail will grow as more people figure it out.

Check out the Whale Trail  

Find More Places to See Whales

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President Obama wants to freeze the tiny part of the federal budget that applies to programs in the environment, parks, education and transportation. I’ve seen this movie before and know this political gimmick doesn’t have a happy ending for wildlife. But here are four easy way to cut the federal budget by $280 million a year and help the environment, wildlife and animal watchers.

Discount Grazing on Public Lands: $121 million
Wild Horse-Roundups and Permanent Holding:  $85 million a year
Killing Coyotes, Starlings and other “Bad” Animals: $71 million a year
Rounding up Yellowstone Bison $3 million

1) Stop Cattlemen Welfare $121 million Cattlemen get to graze on federal land for about one-tenth the cost they would have to pay the private sector. This is a program both the left and right hate. The CATO Institute calls it “land-use socialism.”
Cowboy on the Snow

Ranchers now pay about $1.35 per animal unit per month (AUM), compared to $13.50 in the real world. Just to break even the federal government should be charging between $7.64 and $12.26, a GAO report found. We could stop losing $121 million by charging market rates.
I’m a meat eater and amid the myriad choices of grass-fed and dry-aged, I’ve never gotten a special deal on federal land beef. If the massive federal lands were put on the free market, it would probably drive down costs for all ranchers–and consumers.
(Photo courtesy of Sharat Ganapati)

2) Stop rounding up wild horses : $85 million a year

We really have more wild horses in captivity that we know what to do with–about 33,000. The Bureau of Land Management started amassing mustangs under Bush, then proposed selling them to slaughter in 2005. The public was repulsed.
Each horse costs about $333 to round up (based on the $900,000 the BLM spent to catch 2,700 horses). Then it costs about $500 a year each to keep them.
But, we’re still rounding up horses–another 12,000 this year. That will put nearly two-thirds of the wild horse population in federal custody at a cost of about $85 by 2012.

3) Stop Killing Coyotes and Starlings: $71 million a year
The federal government spent a stunning $71 million in FY2010 on the widely discredited science of killing 2.4 million predators and “nuisance” animals. The predators taken are quickly replaced by other animals moving into the territory. Wyoming spent $2.2 million federal tax dollars in 2007 to kill 11,000 coyotes, 300 foxes, 1,000 pigeons, 600 ravens and 55 wolves (among other animals they decided were bad).
Whether you think these animals should survive or not, you have to question whether federal tax dollars should be spent removing them.

The federal government also paid to dispatch (partial list)
1,177,00 starlings
335,000 cowbirds
90,000 coyotes
86,000 pigeons
16,000 cormorants
13,000 mourning doves
13,000 raccoons
6,000 squirrels
500 stray dogs
1,100 prairie dogs
1,110 feral cats
6,000 rabbits
876 robins (including 776 shot on purpose in Mississippi)
400 otters

344 wolves (including four critically endangered Mexican gray wolves that you are also paying the Fish and Wildlife Service to bring back)
336 cougars
84 mockingbirds
52 pelicans (including one brown pelican, then classified as endangered, intentionally shot in Florida)
43 Sandhill cranes
1 flamingo

4) Stop Rounding up Yellowstone Bison $3 million

Again, lay this one on the cattlemen. The various government agencies (parks, forest service, USDA) say they needs to limit bison because they might give a disease to 200 neighboring cattle.
“The U.S. government spends about $3 million a year to manage wild buffalo like livestock inside Yellowstone Park through its capture, quarantine, and vaccination program, all intended to prevent buffalo’s natural migration to adjacent National Forest lands and on private lands where people want and respect them as wildlife,” says Buffalo Field Campaign habitat coordinator Darrell Geist. He also points out that doesn’t even count crop and livestock subsidies, giveaways to mining companies and gifts to
oil and gas interests. 

They could just stop giving out the money-losing grazing rights to the land in the valley. Remember, it’s a money losing proposition anyway. But on top of that, we’re paying to round them up and ship them off. Even though seeing bison is one of the reasons Americans like going to Yellowstone. BFC’s. Habitat Coordinator Darrell Geist says they could probably buy out the cattle for about $1 million.

Where to Go to See Wolves
Places You Can See Bison

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Since Dillie the deer has gotten a lot of press, her human mom, vet Dr. Melanie Butera, has gotten a lot of grief.   The panic runs the gamut from worrying Dillie is plotting murder to fretting the GPS collar might suffocate her.

“It seems like the hunters are the ones that get the most upset,” says Dr. Butera. On Friday’s Bill O’Reilly show Alisyn Camerota, one of Fox’s blond correspondents, picked the Butera family as the stupidest thing of the week. “Haven’t we all learned,” Camerota said, “that when you live with a domesticated wild animal, one day it wakes up and eats you.”

Hasn’t Camerota learned that an animals can’t be both domesticated and wild? That there’s a difference between carnivores and herbivores? Or even that this particular deer was farm-bred? Maybe Keith Olbermann, a big fan of deer–or at least security videos of deer invading stores–will respond.

“I wondered how she is going to to kill me. Is she going to apply for an American Express card and get on the Home Shopping Network and order a machete?” asked  Dr. Butera.

Not that we’re fans of pet deer. Dillie is an exception because she was born on a farm (not in the wild), raised by an experienced wildlife vet, who has a huge enclosure for her. Plus, she close the house (particularly the guest bedroom) over the barn. You can see what she’s up to on the Dillie cam.

Ohio has about 1,000 deer farms, which have lots of rules because of CWD. A Mennonite who sells big bucks to canned hunts couldn’t make money off Dillie and didn’t want to spend money to save her. Yet, he did bring the tiny fawn to Dr. Butera in the middle of the night to save her after the doe rejected her.

Dillie is nearly blind, which makes her more dependent and docile. Dillie is not without mischief, however. She once stood on her hind legs to get flowers off the top of the fridge and regularly knocks over beverages in a quest for ice. But about the biggest problem she causes is that she makes the dog jealous for attention.

Or See Where You Can See Special Deer

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Are people who hate dogs mean and maladjusted? Yes! That’s the highlight for me of a New York Magazine story on The Rise of Dog Identity Politics. The John Homans piece sprawls over many peculiar developments in the evolution of the urban dog, but the most interesting to me was this finding:

A 1999 study found that people who strongly dislike dogs score significantly higher on the measure of anal character and lower on the empathy scale of the California Psychological Inventory, indicating “that people who liked dogs have less difficulty relating to people.”

Haven’t dog- and animal-lovers always known that? On the extreme side, we’ve connected for a long time how serial killers get their start torturing animals. But we haven’t seen so clearly how misanthropes may start as dog haters. But any urban dog person knows the type: They jump back from your dog on the street, talk up their allergies, complain about dogs being dirty, then frequent dog-friendly places and whine.

Another thing about dog-haters? They love signs banning dogs. Maybe it’s part of their inability to communicate with other humans. A woman down the street from me has made it her one woman crusade to turn a public area into a no dog area, with wordy signs, which are frequently defaced. (My household, let us say, is not completely innocent.)

Since my own dog Jolly died in August, I don’t even have a dog in this fight anymore. But Jolly had this funny habit of barking at people who were yelling at dogs. It was like he felt he was part of the dog union. Dog people are proud to identify themselves as dog people, too. So I’m still in the dog union. I’ve always thought most places would be more enjoyable if the “No Dogs Allowed” signs were replaced with “No Dog-Haters” signs. (And thanks, to Zazzle, my dream has come true).

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Only about nine eagles were on hand for the 3,000 visitors who showed up for the closest eagle watch to Chicago, Eagle Watch Weekend at Starved Rock. Last year, 50 were there for the weekend and 115 spotted on the peak February day.

“I think most people got to see at least one eagle in the wild, which is better than seeing one on TV,” said Kevin Eubank, the head ranger at the dam where you do most eagle viewing. Plus, they had a live bird of prey demonstration, so people got to see one up close, too. Edna Daugherty, who was driving the trolley for Starved Rock Lodge, said that eagles were out off and on all day.

eagle treeThe northern states have had slim eagle viewing this year. In 2009 the mid-winter Illinois eagle survey showed lousy results. First the cold weather seemed to drive birds further south. Now some rivers aren’t frozen at all, meaning the raptors don’t have to concentrate in one spot. The fish they like are in slim supply this year. And, on top of everything else, it’s foggy. The local paper The News Tribune says presciently that eagle-watching has “never been much of an activity for serious birders.” Maybe that’s why it’s so fun: It’s relatively easy these days because eagle populations have recovered and the birds are big, obvious, and thrilling to watch. Six states have eagle watches this weekend: AL, IL, WA, MO, OK and TN.

If anything, I feel even better about my visit to the dam a few weeks ago, when we saw about seven birds. I think it should encourage people who maybe can’t come out during the special events to try to see them another time.

Who celebrates Eagle Days: when and where

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Brown pelicans, just removed from the Endangered Species List three months ago, are getting slammed by California’s polluted storms. These swimming birds can cope with rain far more gracefully than whiny Los Angelenos have been. But the water is so polluted that they have to be treated like oil spill victims. The International Bird Rescue Research Center had 80 pelicans by 7 p.m. Friday and expects they’ll be treating 100 hypothermic birds this weekend.

There’s a bit of callous reaction to the brown pelican‘s plight. One comment on the Washington Post site said it was just the “circle of life.” But they aren’t dying because of storms; they’re freezing because the contaminants break down their natural waterproofing and insulation.

“Brown pelicans tend to feed and congregate near harbors and river mouths where nutrients from the runoff attract fish and other creatures. Pelicans can easily become dirty from pollution in these areas and can lose their waterproofing. The current massive runoff from the storms has brought even more grease, car oil sheen, fish oils and other forms of surface pollution into the coastal areas where these birds feed,” says executive director Jay Holcomb in a letter to supporters.

“We wash them just as if there had been an oil spill. We use dish-washing liquid,” spokesman Paul Kelway told the AP. It takes about a week and $500 of treatment for the birds to recover from hypothermia. The center has responded to 150 oil spills around the world and treated 300,000 birds; 23 other groups in California are also trained to deal with oil spills and wildlife.

Donate to the IBRRC Now

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Florida’s cold snap could provide the big check on invasive species biologists have been wanting for decades. We could see less iguanas and pythons–and also fewer more beloved animals such as parrots. Even animals that didn’t die in the cold could die of a cold in coming weeks.

“I expect we’re going to have huge, huge mortality, maybe even in Miami itself,” says Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission invasive species expert Scott Hardin. “Those that didn’t die [from the cold] could easily die of a respiratory infection.”

The Everglades’ infamous python invaders were at least cold-stunned and perhaps hurt worse. Researchers found that 10 of 11 of the giant snakes they tracked weren’t moving, Hardin said. He added that he didn’t have word yet on the giant parrot colonies that live around the state, especially Miami.

Given the hurt the freezing temperatures caused Floridians, Hardin didn’t want to sound too gleeful. But he so clearly was. The non-natives can push out species that naturally belong, and they’ve been running amok for 30-40 years, the last time Florida saw weather this harsh.

A few of the more vulnerable native animals were also hurt by the wintry blast. Hundreds of sea turtles were rescued, but hundreds more found dead, according to Hardin. The state did get to tag and collect information on lots of endangered green turtles.

Florida got a record count of manatees (5,067) because they’re easier to see when they’re crowded around the warm water of power plants and natural springs. Officials warned tourists to stay away so the manatees wouldn’t leave the warm areas they need to survive. And not just the big tours known for their inappropriate petting, either. Manatee advocate Tracy Colson says even kayak tour operators like hers suspended operations to let the manatees warm up.

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