Breakfasts

A few people have commented that my waistline must be expanding even further given the breakfasts I’m having – obviously in the interests of research with waitresses.

And I’ve just had breakfast at the Morning Star Cafe (open 24 hours) on 2nd Avenue just around the corner from the Pod Hotel where I am staying.

Breakfast was bagel and cream cheese, fresh orange juice and two coffees – $8.35 plus tip (that’s a fiver in UK).  ‘Bout the same as in a similar place in London as far as cost is concerned.

And I survived – I only mention that as there is a large and somewhat incongruous poster above the kitchen hatch entitled ‘Choking victim’ with diagrams and everything.  The bagel was very nice.

And from the photos on the wall President Carter and Mayor Giuliani also survived.

But my waistline has shrunk – breakfast has been the main meal of the day, exercise is up and consumption of booze is down.  Just thought I ought to correct any misconceptions.

It has stopped raining – or is that a pause?

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Let’s swap?

My Republican friend in Washington DC (whose name must be kept a closely guarded secret because if his colleagues knew he had been meeting with an effete, European, pinko-liberal like me he would be doomed) and I came up with a great deal.  It’s going to change your life.  It’s coming soon.  And it goes like this – we swap President Obama for David Cameron. MRfiWDC will be happy and so will I – done, sorted!

Having cracked this one I have been trying to engineer another swap but I can’t find anyone, even after a few drinks, who will go for this.  How about if the USA takes back all those grey squirrels and Canada Geese and we take back our House Sparrows and Starlings?

Nobody will say yes to this one.

If you haven’t seen for yourself, you may find it difficult to believe how common these two introduced species are in the USA.  Starlings were, you may remember, the first species I saw in the USA on arrival.  And I have seen both species every day since.

I would guess that the only species I have seen every day since leaving Washington DC and starting birding are: Starling, House Sparrow, Common Grackle, American Robin, Red-winged Blackbird, Mourning Dove, American Goldfinch and American Crow.

It was a strange love of Shakespeare that may have persuaded Americans to introduce these two species to the continent.  And Starlings were released in Central Park – just a few blocks from where I am now in New York City.

Both species flourished, as non-native species sometimes do, and are spread right across the USA.  I wonder whether I’ll see them both every day – including in the Rockies?  And their success here is in contrast to their current status back home where, although quite numerous, both species have declined a lot in recent decades.

It certainly won’t be the weather that puts them off here – it’s still raining in a very British way (this is Day 5 of rain) – although I gather from home that you need more rain.  I’ll get Pres Obama to bring some with him when I send him over.

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Fitz

I’ve spent another day at Cornell talking to interesting people about birds, the environment and environmental issues. Everyone has been very open and welcoming.

The day started with birding at 6am. We saw a few waders – a familiar Dunlin,  some almost familiar Semi-palmated Plovers (much like a Ringed Plovers) and Spotted Sandpipers (much like Common Sandpipers with spots) and the slightly less familiar Least, Solitary and Semi-palmated Sandpipers (although I have seen all those species on this trip already).  Also a new warbler – Blue-winged – and the first Ruby-throated Hummingbird of the trip.  And the checklist is on EBird with my name attached to it along with my companions’ names.

Amongst my conversations I’ve been lucky enough to spend some time with the boss of the Cornell Lab – Professor John Fitzpatrick.

Fitz – as he is known throughout the lab – is an eminent ornithologist.   I first came across his work when I was studying Bee-eaters in the early 1980s and his book with Glen Woolfenden on the Florida Scrub Jay was a landmark publication.

As we talked, it was clear that we see nature conservation in very similar ways – and a couple of Cornell staff told me in my conversations with them ‘You sound just like Fitz’ and I take that as a compliment.

Fitz told told me that he’s seen all but three of North America’s 700-odd breeding birds, and that he got hooked on birds as a child when he saw that the picture in the Peterson Field Guide looked just like the bird he was looking at – and that the book was full of birds – ‘All those treasures’.

We agreed that urban America sprawled across the landscape in an unpleasant way – wasteful of space and harmful to nature.  And we talked briefly about those extinct American species that fascinate me – the Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet and Heath Hen and we touched on the probably extinct Eskimo Curlew which was pillaged after the Passenger Pigeon’s decline and thus came to be known as the Prairie Pigeon.

Fitz also told me that the Wood Duck, now common again, and visible from his office window as we talked, had once been expected to be the next American bird extinction before Theodore Roosevelt introduced better regulation of hunting.

It was time to broach the subject of that other possibly extinct species – a picture of which is outside Fitz’s office and a postcard-sized image was behind his head as I talked to him – the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

On 3 June 2005 the Cornell Lab published a scientific paper in the journal Science entitled ‘Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) persists in continental North America’ which set out the evidence for there being a male Ivory-billed Woodpecker living in the Big Woods region  of eastern Arkansas.  The evidence is of some observations and some rather fuzzy video footage which has allowed speculation and debate to rage over the last six years.

Some people believe the record, others definitely do not, many are undecided but hope that it is an indication that there are still a few individuals of this magnificent beast out there in the woods of the South-Eat USA.

Fitz gave me a copy of the paper and I asked him to sign it, which he did with the words: ‘For Mark, hoping one or the other of us sees one some day!’ as Fitz, although senior author on the paper, and the main recipient of other’s scepticism or derision, did not witness the bird himself.

I read the paper at the time it was published but have read it again a couple of times and it is suggestive of Ivory-billed Woodpecker but probably not strong enough evidence to be totally convincing.  But as with any good piece of science it lays out the evidence, draws some conclusions, and allows others to draw their conclusions too.

Possible sightings of Ivory-bills still come in to Cornell.  Maybe one day someone will get a perfect image of a perfect Ivory-bill and the world can rejoice, although it seems quite likely that if any still exist they are so few, and far apart, that they are, in Fitz’s words ‘ecologically extinct’ even if there is the odd ‘Martha’ still out there.  I guess we’ll see.

But the abiding memory of Cornell and Fitz for me is of a tight team of good people working hard to do the science on which sound nature conservation has to be based.  It’s clear that the Cornell team admire and respect their leader – and my belief is that that admiration and respect has been well-earned.

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Room 101

Room 101 is not a very auspicious place to be put but actually the Courtyard Marriot in Ithaca is a very friendly place and Room 101 is very comfortable.

Ithaca, NY is famous for vegetarian cookbooks, a defunct shotgun company and the truly famous University and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.  The bird people are based on Sapsucker Road and I’ve been talking birds with them all day.  The staff I’ve met have all been very keen and very proud of Cornell – and I think they have every reason to be proud.

The Cornell Lab is approaching its centenary and that makes it a very well established global centre of ornithological excellence.

One of their big projects is eBird – have a look and see what you think – if you are a birder you’ll be impressed.  I was privileged to be talked through eBird by Steve Kelling and Chris Wood – both nice guys, good birders and with a passion for data-gathering, data-sharing, data-analysis and birds.

And Chris is a world record holder! Beat that – I’ve been with a world record holder today.

I can beat that – I had dinner with two world record holders this evening – Chris, and Jessie Barry who also works at Cornell.  They were both members of a team who recently beat the North American record for the number of species seen in one day – amassing 264 species (and beating the previous record by 3 clear species).  That’s probably more species in one day than I will see in my whole trip!

We ate at Maxie’s Supper Club where I had a delicious jambalaya – and we talked birds – everything from grassland bird declines to the impact of mute swans in marshes (they are seen as a pest), and grouse shooting to the decline in hunting in the USA.  And everyone here wants to know the secret of the RSPB having  million and more members.

But it’s late, and I am going out birding at 6 tomorrow with a world record holder so I need to get some sleep – if Room 101 will let me…

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Still raining

I thought of detouring to Niagara Falls but that would have been silly – it would have added too many miles and I have seen torrents of rain all day anyway.  When it hasn’t been raining hard it has been raining very hard.

So not a bird-rich day – even though the Allegheny Mountains, through which I have meandered, look good for a warbler or two – but not in this weather.

I have two Field Guides with me and I have been comparing them – if you can’t bird then bird-book!

They are the ‘old’ Peterson ‘Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies’ and the ‘new’ Sibley ‘Guide to the Birds’.  There are other guides available.

My Peterson must have been bought in about 1981 when I came to Canada for a few weeks to study bats.  I see it cost me 7.50 (pounds – can’t find the pound sign on this US keyboard) and it is still a very good guide.  I’m sentimentally attached to it but it also has the big advantage of being pocket-sized, partly because it covers fewer species than Sibley and covers them in less detail.

But Sibley is fantastic – in the depth and detail of its coverage.  It shows every US and Canadian species in flight and all plumages but that makes it,  for me, more a ‘leave it in the car guide’ than a ‘field guide’.  It’s a tome.

It’s good to have both.

Peterson has some quirkiness and some wisdom.

He includes in the 1980 edition, which was completely updated from the 1934 first edition, illustrations of the Passenger Pigeon (which went extinct in the wild before Martha fell off her perch in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914) and the Carolina Parakeet (which fell off its perch (an interesting story here which I promise to come back to some time) in 1918).  Peterson didn’t include the Heath Hen which survived on Martha’s Vineyard until 1932 – probably because he regarded it as a race of Greater Prairie Chicken (or maybe he just didn’t like it for some reason). Peterson included two more species as ‘nearly extinct’ – Ivory-billed Woodpecker and Eskimo Curlew – and most  would agree with his prediction – although there is a story to be told there too.  And Peterson also includes Bachman’s Warbler though noting it as the ‘rarest North American songbird’.  Sibley doesn’t include any of these species  – he’s a hard man it seems, he’s written them all off for ever, or maybe his publisher was tough on the number of pages.

Bachman’s Warbler was the last one to go – with the last one being seen in the USA in 1988 (and before that in 1961) at the I’On Swamp just North of Charleston and near where there was all that sex and laughing going on last week.  There is a possible sighting from the wintering grounds in Cuba but it may well be that this species is extinct too – but if it isn’t, hang on to your Petersons because Sibley is no help here.

And yes, I did visit the I’On Swamp last week, not to look for Bachman’s Warbler but to look at the swamp – it’s a swamp for sure.  The habitat looked quite similar to lots of other local habitats and the species was formerly widespread but it was interesting to have a look.

So there have been a few birds which have gone extinct, or probably have, in the last century.  And mostly they disappeared in the period between the American Civil War and the First World War at a time of massive growth in the US economy and population, and when the West was ‘won’.  We’ll come back to this too.

But Peterson also has a note at the front of his book which reads as follows: ‘Birds undeniably contribute to our pleasure and standard of living.  But they also are sensitive indicators of the environment, a sort of ‘ecological litmus paper,’ and hence more meaningful than just chickadees and cardinals to brighten the suburban garden, grouse and ducks to fill the sportsman’s bag, or rare warblers or shorebirds to be ticked off on the birder’s checklist.  The observation of birds leads inevitably to environmental awareness.’.

Brilliantly put and still true.  And maybe that ‘ecological litmus paper’ is why Peterson included those extinct and near-extinct species.  Maybe he thought we ought to be reminded of changing baselines and of what we have lost.  Maybe he thought we should not close the page on these species; we should turn the page and be reminded of them.  And maybe, if he did think these things, he was right.

Today’s soundtrack was Don McLean’s Greatest Hits and, I have succumbed at last, Bob Dylan (The Essential Bob Dylan – not by any means his best, but one I have listened to less than many others).

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