Friday, February 28, 2020

Fri-D: Know Them By the sounds of Their Feet

 [The above Hooded Merganser sequence took less than one second, if my Nikon's specs are correct.]

About ten years ago I found myself sitting in a restaurant overlooking a bay on the Gulf Coast, lunching with friends, and a small flock of ducks whipped across the water at fairly great distance. Of course we had our binoculars, but the ducks landed where I couldn't see them. My friend could, and studied them and then reported they took off.
The only two realistic possibilities for a duck flock in April were Lesser Scaup or Blue-winged Teal. (My friend, who shall remain nameless so as not to embarrass someone on everyone's short list for the title of best birder in North America) said he wasn't sure.
I asked, "Did they patter across the surface or go straight into the air?"
My friend stared at me, looking suddenly very sheepish. This is duck 101; pattering equals a diving duck, springing equals a dabbling duck. He'd neglected to notice, though I could tell he was rewinding the tape in his head.
I've been trying to take my earbirding to a higher level, and have begun trying to i.d. birds by the sound of their takeoff. This is mainly because I like to bird at night, and sometimes you'll be next to water or a marsh and hear a bird take off without vocalizing.
Many birders can recognize the wingbeat sounds of a Mute Swan (but can you tell them from Tundra Swan or Canada Goose? Ever think about that?) Woodpeckers have a distinctive thrumming to their wingbeats, Northern Cardinals do to a lesser extent (but more than the White-throated Sparrows that often roost nearby them and flush when you walk by). And diving ducks patter, dabbling ducks don't, goldeneye wings whistle, Hooded Mergansers patter faster and for a longer distance than Bufflehead.. . . sky's the limit.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Thoughtful Thursday: Thinking About the Future


"I'm just trying to think about the future and not feel sad."

- Elon Musk

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Threats to NJ Birds: The Upshot

[A Kentucky Warbler in your right hand, a starving child's in your left. What do you do? Feed the warbler to the child? The pain of triage.]

(The previous posts on this thread were published on January 5, January 17, January 25, and February 12, 2020, find them by clicking on the main banner above and then scrolling down, or under "Time Machine" at right, depending on how you're viewing this).

Many fantastic people and great organizations work to conserve NJ birds, either directly or as a consequence of other actions like land acquisition or water quality protection. This is a very good thing, and we should bow before these people and groups.

We know birds are declining. Surely folks reading this have heard about the article in the journal Science last fall. You can read about the article in the New York Times, find a summary provided by Cornell, or track down the full article. This study was important; it brought wider attention to the issue and appeared in one of the most prestigious journals extant. But. Ken Rosenberg of Cornell, lead author of the study, and a friend who I greatly admire, was quoted by the Times: "We were stunned by the result. . ." No you weren't, Ken. Those words needed to be said, perhaps, but we've known about this for decades.

Birds are declining, but are not over the cliff, and don't have to go over if we organize and cooperate correctly, triage correctly to apportion resources the best possible way, and as much as possible increase available resources for bird conservation.

Are we doing this? No. Not as well as we must.

Organize and cooperate:  It has often been said that wildlife ignores political boundaries, which is true and which is responsible for the emergence of "joint ventures," a number of which deal with NJ. Like the Atlantic Coast Joint Venture and the Appalachian Mountain Joint Venture. You can read about joint ventures for birds at Partners in Flight , Migratory Bird Joint Ventures, and the USFWS.

Birds don't follow political boundaries, but humans do, and we are stuck being humans (if you could be a bird, which one. . . ?) From a human standpoint, states are pretty organized: counties, municipalities, public lands, private lands. The existing joint ventures do great work, but from an NJ perspective are arguably a bit too geographically and organizationally cumbersome.

I think it is time for a New Jersey Bird Conservation Joint Venture, with a guiding board, a master plan, and an annual conference.

This could start with the annual conference. Any organizations interested? I volunteer to help. (There's a program March 7, 2020 at Stockton University sponsored by the Friends of Forsythe and NJA that sounds interesting, about the study published in Science.)

Do we really need another organization? I don't know. Maybe. A permanent, united organization of organizations and interested individuals. Why? Because, all these bird conservation cats are running in all manner of directions pursuing conservation success (awesome!!!) and where money can be found and media attention can be gained (less awesome, sometimes necessary; how many times has it been said, "No money, no mission"?) There is some very good effort at alliances and coalitions in NJ, but also not a little tribalism.

So we get all these cats in a room and agree to be a herd.

Conservation Triage. Triage is often used in a medical sense. You've got limited medical staff, resources and time, so who gets treated in what order? Patients who will live without immediate care wait, patients who will die without immediate medical care go to the top of the list, patients without a chance of living die. Awful stuff.

Triage spans all the world's problems, including conservation. There will never be enough resources for everything. I took a crack at identifying the top threats to NJ birds in prior posts. I don't know if I
got it right and I don't mind being wrong. I mind very much if we collectively don't get it right.
NJDFW's NJENSP creates species status lists. Great effort, especially in the face of uncertainty. I have participated in the Delphi Technique used by ENSP, and it's daunting. We can know in our hearts that, say, Black-throated Blue Warblers are declining because we just don't see as many anymore, but putting the modern equivalent of the little old person with binoculars in front of the people who hold the reins and make decisions won't feed those bulldogs and their attorneys. We've got to have the data, again showing why the Science article was so important. Painting the decline picture without data may work fine with the general public, however. Don't bother me with the facts. Sigh.

Identifying the most important threats to birds is tricky. You like eagles, I like warblers, hunters like ducks, salt marsh muckers like rails. Do we treat the movie stars, the rank and file, the political leaders, or the starving children? Then you must ask, what time scale are we talking about? Other than sea level rise (which is going to f___ many birds and humans in a few decades' time), I didn't really even mention climate change, because I don't think enough is scientifically known or predictable about what warmer temperatures, early plant emergence, changes to insect phenology, and other climate effects will do in eastern landscapes or when. White-tailed Ptarmigan and Pikas out in the Rockies are probably screwed. Brian Moscatello astutely pointed out to me that if West Nile is killing Ruffed Grouse and climate change lets West Nile mosquitoes go up in elevation, grouse are in for it. Pragmatically, what are we going to do about the climate change that is already out there but will require a major shift of public and political will? I'm NOT saying don't try.

I'm willing to bet the number one cause of NJ bird loss in the last 100 years is habitat destruction. What will be number one in 2020? Dunno, human-subsidized predators? In the next hundred years? Climate change? Massive destruction of wintering habitats south of the U.S.?

This is important. We've got to get this triage bit right, and keep revising it as we learn more. Here's an example: Bald Eagles. I love them, I birded when there was one NJ nesting pair and one member of the pair died, as I recall. Now, over 200 pairs nest annually in NJ, which is great and more than those of NJ Northern Harriers, Sharp-shinned Hawks, Northern Goshawks, Red-shouldered Hawks, maybe Broad-winged Hawks, Peregrine Falcons, and American Kestrels, and that's just the day-flying raptors, all outnumbered by Bald Eagles. Which begs the question: should we spend any money or time on Bald Eagles anymore? I mean in no way to disrespect the many people, many who I count as friends, who worked and work for Bald Eagles.

I think we should put Dave Golden, the talented Director of NJDFW, along with whoever becomes the new head of ENSP, in front of a Bald Eagle statue draped with a banner proclaiming MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. Cut to Dave, who is saying, "With your help, we did it with Bald Eagle. With your help, we can do it with many others."

The triage bottom line is this; We've got roughly 350 bird species that occur annually in NJ, and roughly 212 that nest. How many of these get enough conservation attention, and are they the right ones?

We do not inherit the earth from our parents. We leave it for our children.
(-Somebody very wise said this, exactly who is debated but so what. It's true.)

Who am I to be writing this, and why? I'm a guy who likes birds, and cares about the future. I definitely have no problem being shown I am wrong, in fact I like it, because then I learn.
You can find a bio on this blog (I'm exploring new work options in conservation and would be delighted to shoot out a full résumé.) I hitched my cart to nature at a very young age, and in a life with the usual apportionment of mishaps and mistakes, this was a very smart thing.  I reckon there's no point denying I know a lot about birds and ecology, and after all this time there would be no excuse not to, most especially because not to know would be letting down the many teachers, friends, and colleagues who have shared their knowledge and wisdom with me. This is dangerous because I know I'm apt to leave someone out, but these folks perhaps do not know how much I owe them: the natural resources and biology staff of Rutgers, including Dr.'s Jim Applegate, Len Wolgast, Ted Stiles, Tim Casey, Professor Goldfarb, John Kuser, Dr. Trout, David and Joan Ehrenfeld; professional colleagues, some also supervisors, and friends including Rich Kane, Pat Kane, Pam Thier, Emily Amon, Pete Dunne, Tom Gilmore, John Parke, Troy Ettel, Brian Vernachio, Sean Grace, Scott Barnes, Pete Bacinski, Karl Anderson, Paul Castelli, Vinny Turner, Bill Crouch, Sandy Perchetti, Roger Dutch; friends, teachers and field companions Mark Garland, Mel Ogola, Gustavo Orosco, Dave Womer, Dave Dendler, Rex Miller, Will Russell, Ken Knowles, Richard Crossley, Kevin Karlson, Scott Whittle, Michael O'Brien, Bill Boyle, Tom Reed, Dr. Emile DeVito, Wade and Sharon Wander, Kathy Clark, Ted Nichols, Todd Pover, Kashi Davis, Linda Dunne, Dani Kaschube, and probably others I am missing. These people are why, when I am wrong about anything natural, I have no excuse.

Postscript: preliminary thoughts on a New Jersey Bird Conservation Joint Venture

Joint ventures happen in the business world, too. The definition is basically the same: A joint venture (JV) is an arrangement in which two or more parties agree to pool their resources for the purpose of accomplishing a specific task.

Who gets invited to the table? Off the cuff: NJDFW, NJENSP/Conserve Wildlife, USFWS, NPS, NJFS, NJPS, TNC, NJA, NJCF, NJTWS, one or more land trusts, ANJEC (Association of NJ Environmental Commissions), DU, TU, NJ Federation of Sportsman's Clubs, one or more industries (PSE&G, EMS, REI, Bass Pro Shops), NJ Saltwater Sportsmen, NJ Waterfowler's Association, one or more foundations, someone from the U.S. military, some NJ birders, maybe out of NJBRC. I'm sure I've made errors of omission.

Please, let's not beat this part to death (you can probably tell I've been through a bunch of these), but we come up with a framework which includes the standards:

I. Vision/Mission Statement, perhaps a wordsmithed version of "Lots of birds of lots of species."

II. Strategies: (Throw in goals above this if you want to add a layer). Time-based, measurable, all that yadda yadda, importantly identifying what person/people, agency/agencies, organization/organizations are going to take the lead and who will help and how. OK, ENSP, you've got beach-nesters and colonial waterbirds. OK, USFWS, you've got the refuges. OK, DU, NJDFW, NJ Waterfowler's, you've got migratory gamebirds. OK, NJDFW, you've got resident gamebirds. OK, somebody, you've got the annual conference. Ok, somebody else, you've got a once-annual publication. OK, somebody else, you've got media relations and social media. OK, all the above, here's your support team and what they will do. Something like that.

III. Tactical/Step-down Plans. Maybe based on the plan of the agency/organization that has the lead on the particular matter, be the matter a species, a habitat, or a threat.

IV. Contingency Plans, like for an oil spill, or big fire season, Perhaps these already exist.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Thoughtful Thursday: the Horizon

"The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

What Makes a Great Photograph?

[This is not a great photograph.]

A while ago my friend Harvey posted a photo challenge: 10 favorite travel photos, no comments from the photographer. The one above did not make the cut.

What makes a great photograph is up to the photographer, except . . . it does depend on the plans for the photo. If it's just for you, that's one thing. If it is for publication, that's another. What publication, what audience, what's the message? Is it for art, for the wall or in a magazine or coffee table book? Are you photographing a friend, a wedding, someone's pet? Is it for a contest?

My grizzly bear brothers photo is not great, but it has some of the elements of greatness. Here's my shot at a list of traits that might combine to create something very, very special:

1. Does the person behind the lens want to create a particular feeling ? You do, or should. What feeling? Love? Breathlessness from the beauty? Shock, horror, surprise, outrage, irony? Harvey and many others have said great photos come from the heart. So many photos are "I saw this thing and I took a picture of it. Isn't it cool? (Aren't I cool?)" Ugh. Some data wonk tabulated that 3 BILLION photos were taken in 2019. I think that's low, but it's still more than all the photos ever taken since before the events of 9/11, which is about when the digital shift took off. There were stories of photographers flying off to cover the ensuing war in Afghanistan with new camera bodies and a user's manual to read on the plane. . . How many of those 3 billion were great?

[I rather like this Spruce Grouse, even though it has that "I saw this cool thing. . ." going on. It's a beautiful subject, sometimes hard to find, and it shows the bird where it lives. It doesn't descend into what my friend Scott calls "bird porn," perfect photos of preferably adult males in breeding plumage with the sun behind you and the background is blurred and I don't care how beautiful the bird is, that photo is dead to me. I'm not saying it doesn't have a purpose, it's just dead.]

2. Is the subject interesting? You know: kids, pets, sexy, beautiful, rare, ugly, death, mayhem, that bit. Part of this equation is access, meaning great photos sometimes require getting to a place other photographers can't or don't go. I have no Grizzly Bear photos from New Jersey. However, there are certain wildlife photos that you can look at, once you've travelled around a bit, and know what park and what road and even what bend in the road where the photographer was sitting in their rental car. Bleck. And, also however, access could me around the corner. Crawl out into a marsh and lay down. Get in a kayak. Go to a Trump rally. Do some street photography in your hometown (if you don't know what that is, check out Natalie Merchant's music video of her song Carnival.] ALWAYS carry your camera.

3. Does it pop as a mere thumbnail on the screen? If it does, you can probably hang it on the wall.

[These Desert Bighorns are part of what I think is a great photo. Awesome subject, awesome place, compelling contrast and colors, it was a bitch and a bunch of skill to get to them at sunrise, curves, why is that one looking that direction, on and on.]

4. Does it tell a story, or capture a place, or both? (By the way, I don't care for calling most photos "captures," as in "nice capture." The photographer didn't capture the subject. Goshawks capture snowshoe hares. Capture means you told a story and your photo could give that story to the viewer.  It can be done.

[I was section hiking the AT, halfway and 75 miles through this section. Drought summer, and it was looking like I'd finish the last of my skanky double-aquamira'd beaver pond water that night and then either hike 'til I died or blue blaze it to a town. My ancient point-and shoot was moved from my shoulder strap to my pack, everything to be efficient. Then, somewhere in Appalachia, in one of those less pristine AT places, I walked past this. I walked a half mile thinking about it, and knew I had to take this picture. Either you get it or you don't (it will help if you're a gearhead guy or gal). Southern Appalachia. Jacked up, running bars, fender guards (handcrafted!), cattle guard, replaced door. broken hood, somebody thought it was worth building and still worth something. This photo isn't a story, it's a book. Good writers write with words and sentences. Great writers write with ideas. So do great photographers.]

5. Is it hard to look away, or does it make you look away and force you to look again and again and again? Everybody reading this knows the photo of the Napalm girl in Vietnam.

6. Does it give thought to composition? Do your eyes wander around and around and go back and go to a particular point and does it have that feng shui?

[Composition. I almost deleted this one, then went, waaaait a minute."]

7. Does it show action without awkwardly freezing it? People ooh and ah about flight shots of birds with alulas flared, wings and tails spread, everything crisp. Fine if that's what you like. I delete them. I want to see what I saw.


8. Was it the right camera, lens, filter, flash, settings, post-processing? This is the least important factor to creating a great photo, yet every photographer knows that the first question a new photographer asks is about equipment. It's not about the camera. The one exception is probably birds and wildlife, because you pretty much have to have a long lens (though you can get remarkably close to critters with skill; before the $12,000 lens, buy the $150 chest waders.) For most photography, your smartphone is fine. I used to carry a point-and-shoot for what I now use the phone for.

I could not have photographed the grizzly brothers above any better. Right camera, right lens, right settings. But it falls short, because I could have handed my rig to someone else on the Denali bus, told them to switch it to full auto (a.k.a. the "dumb" setting, which is not fair) and they would have gotten something at least close to as good as mine. The only hang up would be the exposure was tricky, dark subjects on a white background, but the engineers are so good at dealing with that it might have been fine without going to manual, which is what I did (spot metering the bears would have worked, too.) But here's a photo where I had to make it all happen, from subject to tech:

[All you needed to get this photo was get to Alaska, get on a boat, say screw what spray does to the camera, set for manual with a high shutter speed to freeze the water drops, time the breaching hump-backed whales, see the shot and background you wanted, freeze your bare hands, wait, aim, and shoot. This is one rare exception where skill and equipment was very important, but so was heart.]

A couple nights ago I was on the Delaware Bay, and struck up a conversation with a guy who commented he could see my camera a mile away (by the way, I have a good rig but nowhere close to the top end stuff). I said I was mad I didn't bring my iPhone, because that is better than my wildlife rig for sunsets. The gentleman then commented about a NASCAR race he went to with a friend, who was a pro photographer and could go places he couldn't. When they compared shots, she told him, "you're standing back here and your smartphone photos are better than mine!." There you go. It's what's behind the camera.

[Misquoting Crocodile Dundee: "That's not a sunset."]

[This is a sunset.]

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Thoughtful Thursday: All Love Begins with a Question

[In honor of Valentine's Day, above and many below: the many forms and faces of love.] 

"We know nothing of love."

- Ricardo Semler

[If you don't know who Ricardo Semler is, it's worth your time to watch his TED Talk and/or this video.]

"All love begins with "Who the F*** is this?"

- Louis Sekay

[If you'd like full-sized versions, sans watermark, of any of these, give me a shout. And if you don't see yourself here, it's probably only because I haven't caught up with you. . . yet. But beware, I enjoy photographing people (way easier than birds) and the rules are, if you are an adult and in a place you might reasonably expect to be photographed, you're fair game.]