Friday, August 30, 2002

Late-Summer Waterbirds of Berkeley County, West Virginia

A tantalizing report from a fellow birder in neighboring Jefferson County jolted me out of my heat-induced malaise, prompting me to brave the hot and sultry air on the morning of August 18 to check out a few ponds and creeks in Berkeley County for any waterbirds that might be lingering about. This wasn't a complete survey of all water bodies, and probably doesn't even represent a random sample, but it should give some approximation of what is around. I counted 126 individuals of 10 species (plus 2 additional varieties) at 9 different ponds and creek access points (out of approximately 30 checked). Here's the complete list:

Great Blue Heron - 4 individuals at 3 localities
Great Egret - 1/1
Green Heron - 3/3
Canada Goose - 79/3
Wood Duck - 11/2
Mallard - 22/5 (wild 14/3, domestic 2/1, Pekin 6/2)
Ring-necked Duck - 1/1
Killdeer - 2/1
Solitary Sandpiper - 2/2
Belted Kingfisher - 1/1

The Ring-necked Duck was a complete surprise. There are very few early-fall records for the State It was a female-plumaged bird, dentifiable by profile and a very faint, pale "spur" on the side of the breast.
Birding Surprise

On the evening of August 21, 2002, I stopped at the Shannondale Springs WMA, my first visit to that area in many months. I walked the River Trail, which parallels the Shenandoah River for about a mile or so. About a half-hour into the hike, as sweat began running down my forhead and into my eyes, I started fantasizing that a Wood Stork would be awaited me at the end of the trail. The river is wide, shallow, and relatively undisturbed at that point, a perfect location for a southern wader to set down for a much-needed rest after a long journey. Finally, stumbling down onto the open, gravely bank of the river, I raised my binoculars to scan the river. Instead of the anticipated Wood Stork, I gazed upon two people on the far shore (birders, presumably) staring back at me with binoculars; not the kind of birding encounter I've come to expect in West Virginia! I wonder what they saw that I didn't? Here's what I saw:

Great Blue Heron - 4
Green Heron - 4
Wood Duck - 1
Killdeer - 1
Spotted Sandpiper - 4
Mourning Dove - 1
Yellow-billed Cuckoo - 1
Red-bellied Woodpecker - 1
Eastern Wood-Pewee - 1
American Crow - 10
Tree Swallow - present
Northern Rough-winged Swallow - present
Carolina Chickadee - 3
Carolina Wren - 6
Gray Catbird - 6
Northern Cardinal - 8
American Goldfinch - 1
Update on West Nile Virus in West Virginia

The latest (August 29, 2002) update from the West Virginia Bureau of Public Health’s Division of Surveillance and Disease Control shows that 3,016 dead birds (only 97 of them crows) have been reported in West Virginia. Of 267 birds for which test resuls are available, 31 (13%) have tested positive for West Nile Virus. Twelve species have tested positive for WNV (Mourning Dove 1 individual, Blue Jay 13, American Crow 2, Tufted Titmouse 1, Eastern Bluebird 1, American Robin 4, European Starling 1, Northern Cardinal 1, Common Grackle 2, American Goldfinch 1, House Sparrow 4, and other 1), and WNV has been detected in 17 counties (Boone, Cabell, Grant, Greenbrier, Jackson, Jefferson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Mason, Mercer, Nicholas, Putnam, Roane, Taylor, Wayne, Wetzel, and Wood).

Tuesday, August 27, 2002

Authoritive and Useful Source for West Nile Virus Information

Undoubtedly the single most authoritative and useful site I have run across on the West Nile Virus is maintained by ERAP, the Environmental Risk Analysis Program of Cornell University’s Center for the Environment. The ERAP site maintains up-to-date high-quality information about the status of WNV in mosquitos, birds, mammals, and humans. Also of particular interest, the WestNileVirus-L archive contains knowledgeable and informative discussions about all aspects of WNV.
Online Bird Journals and Other References - Number 20

Audubon Bird Conservation Newsletter, a product of the National Audubon Society, is a new “electronic periodical that brings you up to date on the accomplishments and work of Audubon's Bird Conservation Program, the progress of the Important Bird Areas initiative, and issues and events in bird conservation.” The Summer 2002 issue can be viewed online, or you can subscribe to receive it via email (directions provided). It appears that the newsletter will be issued quarterly, at least initially.

Saturday, August 24, 2002

West Nile Virus Alert

The National Wildlife Health Center issued this Wildlife Health Alert on August 22:

Wildlife Health Alert # 02- 01

To: Natural Resource/Conservation Managers
From: Acting Director, USGS National Wildlife Health Center
Title: West Nile Disease Continues to Move West - August 22, 2002

The West Nile virus (WNV) spread westward much faster than anticipated in 2002. It is believed that the fall and spring migration of millions of birds through affected states in 1999, 2000 and 2001, was the likely source of WNV for southern and western states. In 2002, West Nile virus is present to date in 39 states. Wild bird mortality is documented in 38 states and the District of Columbia and Wyoming has reported WNV in a horse (see map and website links). In addition, there are WNV positive birds reported in the four Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec.

The number of documented cases in humans and horses in 2002 has surpassed all previous years Human cases of WNV have been reported in 18 states and the District of Columbia with 14 deaths. The distribution of confirmed or probable human cases is LA (147, 8 deaths), MS (55, 2 deaths), TX (25), IL (9, 1 death), MO (5, 1 death), AL (3), OH (2), MI (2), WI (2), TN (1, 1 death), NY (1), AR (1), FL (1), MA (1), MD (1), KY (1, 1 death), IN (1), WA (1 contracted on travel to LA) and Washington DC (1). For comparison in 2001 there were 66 human cases with 10 deaths, in 2000 there were 21 human cases with 2 deaths, and in 1999 there were 62 human cases with 7 deaths. There are reports of 530 WNV confirmed or probable positive horses in 21 states. Western states have expressed concern that as WNV moves west it may infect wild horse populations.

With the rapid expansion of WNV into 11 new states this summer, including the western states of Colorado and Wyoming, WNV is expected to spread to the remaining 9 continental United States because of the high numbers of infected migratory birds and increased reports of infected mosquito species. Now that the virus is present in all of the Gulf coast states, there is concern that WNV will spread to the Caribbean and Central American countries.

Wild bird mortality continues to be the most sensitive method for early detection of WNV activity. Federal and state wildlife agencies and state and local health departments depend upon the testing of dead birds for their WNV surveillance. The American crow, fish crow, and blue jay appear to be the most susceptible species. As the virus has spread into the gulf and mid-western states, blue jays appear to be replacing crows as the most frequently reported species with the virus. Since 1999, scientists have detected the virus in 111 species of captive and free-ranging birds. The total mortality and impact on specific avian populations is unknown. Wildlife disease scientists are monitoring the possible increase of West Nile Virus infections in new species of birds, particularly other Corvidae species, as it moves west.

USGS is continuing to provide West Nile Virus surveillance support to state public health, wildlife, and federal agencies, including the military, which are collecting and testing wild birds to detect West Nile Virus activity in their areas. USGS mapping and wildlife disease scientists are continuing field research effort in collaboration with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate the role of migratory birds in disseminating the virus and in determining the pathways by which the virus is maintained and spread. Serum is being collected from migratory birds at multiple sites on US Fish and Wildlife Service Refuges, National Parks, and military facilities in the eastern half of the United States to test for WNV infection. This sampling will continue during the spring and fall migrations until the fall of 2003. The USGS is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention again this year to map the geographic and temporal spread of WNV across United States. These maps are updated weekly.

To obtain further information and to report sickness or unusual bird mortality, contact Emi Saiko at or Kathy Converse at or call 608-270-2400 to reach the West Nile Coordinator at the National Wildlife Health Center.

USGS WILDLIFE HEALTH ALERTS are distributed to natural resource/conservation agencies to provide and promote information exchange about significant wildlife health threats in their geographic region.

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Snowberry Clearwing: A Bumblebee Mimic

Our weekend neighbors put out a hummingbird feeder in their backyard a couple of weeks ago. Last weekend, they mentioned that the feeder had already attracted a bunch of "little" hummingbirds. My curiosity aroused by that remark, I spent some time late Sunday afternoon, and again Monday afternoon, sitting at their picnic table watching the feeder. I saw many bees and wasps attracted by the sweet nectar that the feeder had to offer, but no hummingbirds. The adjacent Butterfly Bushes also attracted a variety of insect life, especially several species of bees and butterflies that I wasn't familiar with. But what really attracted my attention were two very large, bumblebee-like insect that I initially thought might be hawk moths. The thorax had black-and-yellow markings like a bumblebee and it hovered at the flowers with rapidly-beating wings like a hummingbird; a long, protruding proboscis completed the hummingbird illusion. It didn't take too much Internet surfing to pin down the identify of these nectar feeders as Snowberry Clearwings (Hemaris difinnis), also known as Bumblebee Moths or Hummingbird Moths. The Snowberry Clearwing is a wide-ranging and fairly common member of the family Sphingidae, the sphinx moths (also known as hawk moths). The caterpillars of sphinx moths are known as hornworms, and a few, such as tomato and tobacco hornworms, are well-known garden pests. The Snowberry Clearwing differs from most other sphinx moths in that it has adapted to feeding during daylight hours rather than at night. A fascinating insect to have in the neighborhood!

Monday, August 19, 2002

Ring-necked Duck Still Present

The Ring-necked Duck that I reported from Berkeley County yesterday is still present. It is in a pond on the Stonebridge Golf Course adjacent to Caledonia Drive. I saw it twice toady, at 6:45 AM and at 2:00 PM. It appeared to be in nearly the same spot that I observed it yesterday. On all three occasions, the bird was been sitting upright on it's tarsi in very shallow water at the very edge of the pond (very uncharacteristic behavior for a healthy diving duck), and has been preening it's breast and belly feathers. The out-of-season occurrence and strange behavior suggest that the bird is sick or injured.
This Mockingbird Has Expensive Tastes

A Northern Mockingbird somehow found it's way into an enclosed conservatory housing 1,500 rare butterflies at the Indianapolis Zoo. Before it could be captured and released "far, far away," it had gobbled down $1,000-worth of rare butterflies, with individuals of the Blue Morphos being especially hard hit.
Birds Prefer Allfuent Human Neighborhoods

That seems to be the implications of a study conducted in high, middle, and lower income communities of Phoenix, Arizona. Upscale areas consistently harbored the greatest number of bird species, while middle and lower-income areas were progressively less diverse. The factors that attract birds to affluent neighborhoods remain unknown, but the researchers suggest that “zoning decisions, the type of existing landscaping, proximity to factories, local cat populations, the presence of bird feeders—even things such as the number of dog dishes or other sources of water and food in the communities” could be contributing influences.” Scroll to the end of the above document for links to other recent bird stories from National Geographic News.

Sunday, August 18, 2002

A Hot and Sultry Morning of Birding

Matt Orsie's report to the WV-Bird listserv of 8/16/2002 jolted and me out of my heat-induced malaise, prompting me to brave the hot and sultry morning air to check out a few ponds and creeks in Berkeley County for any waterbirds that might be lingering about. This wasn't a complete survey of all water bodies, and probably doesn't even represent a random sample, but it should give some approximation of what is around. I counted 126 individuals of 10 species (plus 2 additional varieties) at 9 different ponds and creek access points (out of approximately 30 checked). Here's the complete list:

Great Blue Heron - 4 individuals at 3 localities
Great Egret - 1/1
Green Heron - 3/3
Canada Goose - 79/3
Wood Duck - 11/2
Mallard - 22/5 (wild 14/3, domestic 2/1, Pekin 6/2)
Ring-necked Duck - 1/1 (see below)
Killdeer - 2/1
Solitary Sandpiper - 2/2
Belted Kingfisher - 1/1

The Ring-necked Duck was a complete surprise. Are there any other early-fall records for the State? It was a female-plumaged bird, identifiable by profile and a very faint, pale "spur" on the side of the breast.

Friday, August 16, 2002

Birds Featured in September-October Issue of Islands Magazine

I have long admired Islands magazine for the stunning photography and the exotic locales that it features in each issue. That said, I also have to admit that I have never subscribed to the magazine, nor even purchased more than one or two issues. But for bird lovers, the September-October 2002 issue includes three articles of sufficient interest that they should at least peruse the issue at their favorite news stand or book store.

Serpent in the Garden (page 20) is a brief, two-paragraph note about the destruction wrought on the native fauna of Guam by the introduced and invasive Brown Tree Snake. Nine of Guam's 12 indigenous forest bird species have vanished, including Guam's official bird, the Ko'ko, or Guam Rail.

Flying High (pages 50-51) chronicles the successful effort to bring back the Aleutian Canada Goose from the brink of extinction. I am particularly fond of this article because it documents a project that I was personally involved with for several years. In fact, I am credited with several quotes:

By 1971, with several hundred geese thriving in captivity, a group of Maryland-born goslings were released, with some success, on a fox-free Aleutian Island called Amchitka. The Arctic seasons are much different than Maryland's, and the birds needed to acclimate to the area before they could be released. In February 1974, more Maryland geese were flown to the Aleutian isle of Attu, where they were met by John Trapp [emphasis added], a young biologist working for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (Attu was relatively accessible and was the site of an old Coast Guard loran station). After acclimating for a month, the birds, accompanied by Trapp, would be loaded onto a support ship and taken to Agattu, which was accessible only by sea.

On Attu, Trapp lived in almost complete isolation. "I had to hike three miles just to make a phone call," he recalls. "It got pretty lonely."

Weeks passed and bad weather delayed the arrival of the support ship and its supplies. At one point, the crew received a radio message from Trapp: "Running low on food," he said. "Geese looking tastier every day."
The author then moves on to describe another aspect of the project, the capture of entire family groups of geese at Buldir Island for relocation on other islands:

"Rounding up the geese was hazardous," says Trapp, who was also tapped for that assignement. "There were large boulders scattered everywhere on the island, and by late summer, when we'd capture the geese, the grasses were waist high, completely hiding most of the boulders."
'Till the Cahows Come Home (pages 108-110) tells of the life-long endeavors of the legendary David Wingate to restore populations of the critically-endangered Cahow, or Bermuda Petrel, at its only-known breeding colony on tiny 14.5-acre Nonsuch Island, located just off Bermuda.

Wednesday, August 14, 2002

Hot and Dry

Judging by climatic conditions in the Nation's capitol, this summer has been unusually hot and dry (with the exception of the suffocating humidity) in the Mid-Atlantic Region. Thus far, temperatures (as measured by cooling-degree days) have averaged about 15 percent above normal. Even more telling, precipitation is 30 percent below normal for the year to date. Only 2 of the preceding 12 months (April and June) experienced above-average rainfall. August has been exceptionally dry, with precipitation to date a mere 9 percent of normal. Source: Washington Post, August 14, 2002.

Tuesday, August 13, 2002


That's the adjective that best describes how I have felt over the last couple of months. Over that time period, my typical week-day schedule has gone something like this: up at 4 AM, on the road at 4:30 AM, arrive at the office at 6:30 AM, leave the office at 4 PM, arrive home at 6 PM, leave home no later than 6:15 PM, arrive at chiropractors at 6:30 PM, leave chiropractors at 8 PM, arrive home at 8:15 PM, fix and eat dinner by 8:30 or 9 PM, in bed by 11 PM or so. Next day, get up and do it all over again! Whew! With a schedule like that I have been somewhat negligent in keeping the weblog up to date. I've hardly had time to gather my wits about me, let alone translate them into half-way intelligent sentences and paragraphs. I have no lack of subjects to write about, just the time to do it. Hopefully, things will improve in the near future.

Friday, August 09, 2002

Goose Hybrid on the Shenandoah River

I stopped by the Shenandoah River yesterday evening after work to look for the Tricolored Heron that has been hanging out ther. I didn't locate the heron, but while scanning a flock of 57 Canada Geese, one bird stood out: an apparent Canada x Graylag goose hybrid. The head and neck were dark chocolate brown, the feathers of the lower neck gradually fading to light gray on the breast, and to white on the belly. The back and dorsal surface of the wings were mottled dark gray, as in a typical Canada Goose. The bill was pink and appeared somewhat stouter compared to the Canadas. The legs were also pink. Contrasting with the dark chocolate-brown of the head and neck was a dirty-white cheek patch, which wasn't as extensive as that of a Canada Goose. Also in contrast with the dark head were three small patches of white feathers at the base of the bill (one at the top of the bill and one on each side), a feature which is apparently not unusual in the Graylag Goose. The Graylag is the ancestor of the common barnyard goose.
Cooper's Hawk Meets Cooper Mini--An Improbable Union

The Cooper's Hawk is the largest and least common of the two species of Accipiter--bird-eating hawks--found commonly in the eastern United States, the other being the Sharp-shinned. The Cooper Mini is a small car manufactured in England and now being imported into the United States in small numbers. A colleague who lives in northern Virginia who has the rare distinction of having a pair of Cooper's Hawks nesting in her backyard, and also just recently purchased a Cooper Mini. Upon waking one recent weekend morning, she discovered one member of the Cooper's Hawk pair perched on the hood of her Cooper Mini. What an incredible cooincidence!

Tuesday, August 06, 2002

Another Southern Heron in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle

One day after seeing a Tricolored Heron on the Shenandoah River, I saw a Great Egret in Berkeley County last evening. One bird was seen in a storm-water retention pond just east of Martinsburg near the Stonebridge Golf Course. I scan this pond every evening as I drive home from work but have never seen anything before except for an occasional Killdeer, so this was a real surprise.

Monday, August 05, 2002

Tricolored Heron Visits West Virginia

Yesterday afternoon, I took a trip to the Shenandoah River in Jefferson County (the easternmost county in West Virginia) to see the Tricolored Heron that had been reported there, this being the first record of the species for the State. The bird was first spotted by Matt Orsie, a local birder, on July 31 and has been seen daily since then. I had no trouble locating the bird and had leisurely and unobstructed views of the bird fishing in the river for about 10 minutes. Only when a pair of bikers approached the spot where I was standing did the bird flush and fly to the far shore of the river. Quite thrilling! The Tricolored is perhaps the most slender of the North American herons; it reminds me of an under-sized Great Blue Heron with anorexia.

Friday, August 02, 2002

West Nile Virus in West Virginia

Prior to this summer, West Virginia and South Carolina were the only States east of the Mississippi in which WNV had not been confirmed. Then, last week, came word that a dead bird found in West Virginia had tested positive for WNV. According the West Virginia Infectious Disease Epidemiology Program, the infected bird was an Eastern Bluebird, a result which I find most interesting. In the vast majority of cases in which WNV has been detected in birds, the American Crow has been the species involved.

View this map to see how rapidly WNV has spread across the country since it's initial detection in the vicinity of New York City in 1999. I can't help but wonder, if WNV had not been detected in the U.S. until the summer of 2002, would the news media now be touting this summer's outbreak in Louisiana as the work of terrorists?
Penguin Bycatch--In Alaska!

It just so happens that there's one damn penguin swimming around in the whole of the North Pacific Ocean (your guess is as good as anyone's as to how it got there), and it manages to get caught in a fisherman's seine net. Go figure!

P.S. It was released unharmed.

Thursday, August 01, 2002

Conspicuous Late-Summer Birds of a Preston County Mini-Farm

As has become our custom, my wife and I have spent the last week of July as live-in caretakers of a house and mini-farm in rural Preston County, located in north-central West Virginia. As we enter the dog days of summer, the birds that have been such a part of our lives for the past 3-4 months start to fade from our conciousness as territorial singing wanes. The woods and fields become eerily quite. Still, there are a few birds about. I haven't done any serious birding in the week that we've been here, but a few species have made their presence known. Here's a list of 17 species that I have noted (in alphabetical order):

American Crow, American Goldfinch, American Robin, Black-capped Chickadee, Blue Jay, Carolina Wren, Chipping Sparrow, Eastern Towhee, Gray Catbird, Mourning Dove, Pileated Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Wild Turkey, and Wood Thrush.
Coca Cola Collectible Bird Cards

Purchased at an antique mall in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia: two cards from a series produced by the Coca Cola Company. The cards are from THE WORLD OF NATURE Series V, Among Our Feathered Friends. Each card features a painting of a bird by Lynn Bogue Hunt with accompanying descriptive text about the bird. The cards probably date from the 1930s or '40s.

Card No. 3. The Bluebird, Sialia sialia. The text reads:

Anyone who has ever caught a flash of blue through spring orchards, and listened to the Bluebird's gentle, purling song, will not wonder that he has been chosen as the traditional emblem of happiness. The male bird comes to us earlier even than the Robin, followed by the female about a week later. Together they build a soft nest of grass, perhaps in some old apple tree, but they will move into a bird house, if you provide one. They bring good luck, in the true sense, devouring hordes of grubs and caterpillars. They remain till frost time, usually raising two lusting broods, then go South, some even to Bermuda for the winter. Protect the birds. They are our friends.
Card No. 11. The Herring Gull, Larus argentatus. The text reads:

On all sea coasts, up great rivers and flapping tirelessly over large inland bodies of water, the Herring Gull (or some related species) presents a picturesque sight. It is a large bird, with powerful bent wings, a strong flier, and often follows vessels far out to sea. It adds a touch of life to the expanse of wave and sky in mid-ocean. On these flights it lives upon the refuse thrown out by ships, for it is a scavenger. Along shores and in coastal waters it thus helps to keep down pollution.
Coca Cola was just one of a variety of companies that produced bird cards for free (or minimal-cost) distribution to customers in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Others that come to mind include Dwight & Church, Arm & Hammer, Singer, and a host of tobacco companies.


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