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Monthly Archives: November 2011

(c) Greg Saulmon 2011

Update: Posted this link to Facebook and received several comments identifying this as a juvenile red-tail. Thanks to everyone who offered their help!

Ran across this shot while organizing some photos. This hawk — I’m thinking it’s a juvenile-ish red-shouldered hawk — was sitting on a building on Main Street in Springfield on January 11, 2011.

Click to enlarge — those eyes really deserve to be big.

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Starlings over a Hadley farm, February 2010. (c) Greg Saulmon 2010

I just ran across this 2009 article from Audubon Magazine about research into how birds can fly in flocks comprising thousands of members, at speeds of 40 miles per hour, without colliding.

Theories in the 1960s, author Peter Friederici explains, posited that the tight maneuvers of flocks of birds were similar to the movements found in schools of fish — and that each individual need only mimic the movements of its closest neighbors.

But in the 1970s, graduate student Wayne Potts discovered a flaw in the theory: it didn’t explain how flocks can execute maneuvers so quickly. Friederici writes:

By making movies of their flocks and analyzing, frame by frame, how each individual bird moved, he was able to show that a turn ripples through a flock just as a cheerleading wave passes through sports fans at a stadium. He explained the finding with the name of his theory: the “chorus line hypothesis.” An individual dancer who waits for her immediate neighbor to move before initiating her kick will be too slow; similarly, a dunlin watches a number of birds around it, not just its nearest neighbors, for cues. […]

“The wave was propagating through the flock at least three times faster than could be explained if they were just watching their immediate neighbors,” says Potts.

Some of the latest research into flock behavior was taking place in 2009 at the Roman National Museum in Rome, Italy, where a roost of starlings gathers each winter. Scientists are now using software designed for statistical mechanics to create three-dimensional maps of flocks in flight.

Read more about the project, codenamed StarFLAG, here. And, be sure to check out this photo gallery by Richard Barnes that accompanies the Audubon article.

I’ve been in New Orleans, where the birds downtown were mostly sparrows, pigeons and mockingbirds. I’m sure there were many more, hiding in the shadows or in places I just wasn’t looking. That’s always the important thing to remember: the fact that you haven’t seen something isn’t proof that it doesn’t exist.

The mockingbirds seemed to be everywhere, from Jackson Square in the French Quarter to the Lafayette cemetery out in the Garden District.

The treat on this trip, though, came when I made a rather ill-advised but successful attempt to make it from the entrance to City Park out to the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, on foot.*

The park was full of birds familiar and exotic: I was drawn to the edge of a pond by the site of a plain-old female duck standing in the sun, and then realized a big pelican was perched in a tree just a few feet form the shore. Canada geese and white ibises jockeyed for position when a group of girl scouts came bearing bread crumbs.

Over the course of my walk through the park I saw hawks and crows, egrets and herons. Photos of some of the water birds — as well as a few of those mockingbirds — below. Click any photo to enlarge.

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*Don’t try this if you’re wearing dress shoes. It’s far.

Pelican, City Park. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

(c) Greg Saulmon 2011

A white ibis lands. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

(c) Greg Saulmon 2011

Two views of a blue heron in City Park. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

An egret flies over Armstrong Park in the city's Treme neighborhood. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

A mockingbird in Lafayette Cemetery Number 1. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

A pair of mockingbirds near Jackson Square in the French Quarter. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

Starlings at Heritage State Park, Oct. 29, 2011. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

Everyone could tell the storm was coming.

Just after 10 a.m. a group of men and women stood in the parking lot of a convenience store on High Street trying on coats pulled from one of those clothing donation boxes that looks for all the world like a dumpster.

In the alley behind my apartment a man sitting on an abandoned loading dock asked if I could spare any change. I’d met him once a year earlier, when the governor made a campaign stop at Old San Juan Bakery. As the governor boarded his bus and waved good-bye, the man turned to me and said, “I should run for governor. I could help people — I know what it’s like out here.”

He and a few other men spent the nights out by the river. “We sleep like raccoons,” he told me.

On the morning of the storm I dug through my pockets and found 45 cents.

‘Gracias, amigo,” he said.

“Keep warm,” I said.

“Bless you,” he said, and he folded back into the shadows.

The streets were quiet but the people who were out were enveloped in completing one odd task or another. In a vacant lot on Hampshire Street a man tossed junk into the bed of a pickup truck while a tuxedo-colored cat looked on. On Essex Street a man pushed a big-screen television wedged into a shopping cart. The sky seemed cloudless until you realized it was all cloud, all shapeless and gray.

(c) Greg Saulmon 2011

A man in a bright orange sweatshirt rode a bike under the huge bright orange trees outside the library, and a tabby cat the color of faded beech leaves sauntered toward the burned out Barlow apartment building.

At the end of Division Street, out at the far end of the blocked off parking deck, a single song sparrow sat in a high branch and braced itself against the thickening wind.

Everyone could tell the storm was coming, especially the birds.

Behind city hall, a blue jay swallowed berries in a tree on Heritage Street. It squeaked and squawked in a language I’ve never heard a blue jay use. A robin — that sign of impending hope and warmth when sighted in March — bounced from tree to tree along the cobblestone street, trying to read the signs of the suddenly confusing season.

(c) Greg Saulmon 2011

The pigeons sitting along the upper deck of the parking garage buried their faces in their breasts and shrugged their shoulders hard and looked ready to stay right there and wait out the whole winter.

By the time the snow started falling a few hours later, though, several of the pigeons had taken refuge inside the garage, startling from the rafters and hovering under the low ceiling as I walked through. Outside the snowflakes floated like moths.

The snow had come fast and hard and strong and plenty of people were still out, feeling their way through the streets like they were walking through a milkshake.

In the park the trees blushed and froze like secret lovers caught in the act. Starlings flocked the way they flock in dead winter. Against the sky each bird seemed smaller than the flakes in front of my face.

It’d be a few more hours before the trees started snapping and exploding under the weight of the snow. In the nights that followed the surrounding neighborhoods and towns and cities were dark and the sky seemed suddenly bright. Thousands of us tried to adjust to a world where we woke and slept according to the sun’s shortening cycle; to a world where there seemed little to do beyond trying to find simple food and comfort; to a world that was the only world the birds have ever known.

Gulls in the parking lot of the K-Mart plaza on Route 5 in Holyoke. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

The car pulled up and a passenger tossed several handfuls of bread onto the asphalt. Within seconds a ring-billed gull glided in for a landing and inspected the free meal. Nearby, four more gulls sat atop a light post.

(c) Greg Saulmon 2011

The scene I watched unfold recently at the K-Mart Plaza on Route 5 in Holyoke is common, and one that state officials hope to curb.

As Stan Freeman noted in a recent article appearing in The Republican, the gulls are drawn inland by the promise of easy foraging — but the problems associated with a large gull population extend beyond the parking lots of big-box stores and fast food restaurants where they’re often seen. Daniel E. Clark of the Division of Water Supply Protection for the Massachussetts Department of Conservation and Recreation explained to Freeman:

For protection, the gulls roost at night on fresh water, away from predators, sometimes forming roosts in late winter of as many as 7,000 birds on the open waters of major reservoirs, such as Quabbin Reservoir. […] The vast majority are ring-billed gulls, although there are also herring and black-backed gulls roosting.

This fall, state workers will be posting signs and talking to the public in places where gulls congregate to convince people not to feed them in order to protect water supplies.

From the department of Conservation and Recreation: an example of a sign that state workers will begin posting this fall. The signs list some of the health hazards gulls can bring, such as Salmonella, E. coli and bacteria that can cause staph infections and stomach flu.

“Please help keep our drinking water clean,” implores one sample sign designed for Walmart parking lots.

The Department of Conservation and Recreation began a concerted effort to study the gulls’ habits in 2008, through a tagging and tracking program.

“The existing gull harassment program has worked well, but we can do more and do it more effectively,” wrote Department of Conservation and Recreation Commissioner Richard K. Sullivan Jr. in a November 2008 press release announcing the program. “Keeping the gulls away from the reservoirs will help the MWRA maintain the Quabbin and Wachusett as some of the highest-quality water sources in the nation.”

As of Nov. 21, 2008, the agency had tagged over 200 ring-billed, herring, and great black-back gulls, and a May 2009 progress report on the project [pdf] put the number of gulls trapped between January 2008 and March 2009 at 483. Trapped gulls were fitted with an aluminum federal band on one leg and a colored, uniquely numbered band on the opposite leg. Most of the trapped birds also received uniquely numbered wing tags. Color coding of the wing tags showed whether the gull was trapped near the Wachusett or Quabbin Reservoirs.

A gull takes flight in the K-Mart plaza. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

A handful of gulls were fitted with satellite transmitters.

By April 2009, the agency had recorded 806 sightings of wing-tagged or leg-banded gulls, with many reports coming in from the public. While the majority of the reports came from Massachusetts, sightings were reported in an additional 18 states and Canadian provinces.

An update on the research published in the spring 2011 issue [pdf] of the agency’s Downstream newsletter reported over 3,200 sightings, with over 2,100 in Massachusetts.

“The next time you consider tossing a few crumbs out to the begging gull next to your car, please stop and consider where these gulls are going each night and the impact they can have on water supply reservoirs,” a passage in the newsletter reads. “Gulls are highly resourceful, very mobile, and extremely adaptable. They will survive just fine without the french fries, crackers, or bread that people provide.”

But the habit may be hard to break — for humans as well as gulls.

During a recent stop at the Route 5 plaza, a man in a car spotted me photographing the birds.

“This is a great place to watch them,” he said, pausing to pitch a handful of Taco Bell leftovers out his window. “They’re always here.”

If you spot a tagged or banded gull, report your sighting to dan.clark@state.ma.us or call (508) 792-7423, ext. 215. Include the date and time of the sighting, the color of the wingtag, and — if possible — the alpha-numeric combination.

Find more information about the project at: www.mass.gov/dcr/gullstudy