The great naturalist, biologist and writer Bernd Heinrich made a startling discovery this week while walking in the woods near his cabin in western Maine. Here's a Naturalist's Notebook video explaining the mystery in Bernd's words:
Yesterday wildlife biologist Linda Welch told the stunning story of seabird decline in the Gulf of Maine, which stretches from Nova Scotia to Cape Cod and is one of the most rapidly warming bodies of water on Earth.
In an informal lunch talk at Acadia National Park HQ, Linda laid out facts that should jolt anyone who cares about birds, fish, oceans, lobsters, Maine or the potentially devastating effects of climate change on the global web of life and the ecosystem of which humans are part. She and her researchers have tracked a 57% drop in the Gulf over the last 10 years in the number of Arctic terns, a 27% decline in roseate terns, a 47% reduction in cormorants in 15 years, a 31% decline of great black-backed gulls, a fall of 22% in herring gulls, a drop of 30% in eiders, and so on. These birds are struggling to find adequate food in the Gulf, whose temperature began dramatically spiking upward in 2004, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.
Linda knows her stuff; she has done seabird research at Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge since 1998. When she says that birds like terns, razorbills and puffins could be gone from the Gulf of Maine within a decade and notes how desperately the changes in the Gulf ecosystem need to be further studied—right now—we need to listen. Please spread the word. The Naturalist’s Notebook will be telling and showing you a lot more about this subject in the months and years ahead.
Thank you, Linda and Acadia and also Schoodic Institute, where Seth Benz, director of the bird ecology program, is doing vitally important work.
If you were writing the script for a fictional bird horror movie, you might invent a small, cute, innocent-victim species and call it the fairy wren. You might then create a larger, evil, blood-lusting murderer that would impale its victims on thorns before eating them. This you would call the butcherbird.
Both of these birds live in Australia. They are not friends. The butcherbird kills, impales and eats fairy wrens. It is not unique in kebab-ing its prey; common North American birds called loggerhead shrikes, for example, do so with mice and other protein-rich dinner entrees. If you would like video evidence, you can click on this 51-second youtube film of a shrike eating a tiny snake it has impaled on barbed wire (nice horror-flick touch!):
Now the relationship between fairy wrens and butcherbirds has become even more interesting—and less one-sided. In a new article in the journal Behavioral Ecology, researchers from the University of Chicago report that male fairy wrens, which are known to be promiscuous, take advantage of what the researchers call the "scary movie effect" in attracting female partners. When a male wren hears a butcherbird cry out—signaling danger to wrens, of course—he calls out to try to attract a female. He is capitalizing on her fear. This, the researchers say, resembles what teenage boys do when they take teenage girls on dates to horror movies. And that is the scary movie effect: a romantic partner cozying up closer when fearful.
For male fairy wrens, at least, the technique apparently works. But do not think the males all bad. The fooling around is but one aspect of the species' unusual social structure. Another is that female fairy wrens often have multiple attendants—nannies, if you will—to help them rear their chicks. These nannies are males.
Henry Bessemer, the English inventor who revolutionized the construction world—making skyscrapers and large bridges possible, for example—by inventing a process to turn molten pig iron into sturdy, inexpensive steel, would have been 198 years old today. Bessemer's technique involved blowing air in, raising the temperature and burning off impurities in the iron. Eight U.S. towns were named for him, including Bessemer, Alabama, a longtime iron smelting center and the hometown of Neil Bonnett, who lived (and died) driving vehicles made of Bessemer's steel around NASCAR race tracks at 200 mph.
Alice Eastwood, a Canadian-born botanist who discovered and collected many plant species in California, would have been 152. She was the curator of the herbarium at the California Academy of Sciences and helped save many of the herbarium's specimens from being lost in the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. If you hike out west, you may someday stumble upon what's commonly known as an Alice Eastwood bolete—a large mushroom, not wise to eat if you wish to live as long as Alice did (97 years).
A few noteworthy news items from the week:
• Shift in Magnetic North Pole Causes Tampa Airport to Close Runway. As we've noted before, the magnetic North Pole—the spot toward which compasses point—moves. Compass needles in Africa have been shifting by about one degree per decade over the last century. Magnetic north is currently (I'm eyeballing this from a map) in the Arctic Ocean north of Canada's Yukon Territories, moving about 40 miles a year toward Russia. This has caused the Tampa airport to close its main runway to update the navigational information painted on the runway. The bigger question: Why only Tampa?
• More Mass Bird Die-offs. On top of the 5,000 red-winged blackbirds that died and fell from the sky in Arkansas on New Year's Eve, hundreds of birds (a variety of species) have been found dead in Louisiana and hundreds (maybe thousands) of turtle doves have been found dead in Italy. As I mentioned on Facebook earlier this week, one theory for the Arkansas bird deaths is that fireworks scared and disoriented the birds, which have extremely high blood pressure and heart rates and can be vulnerable to fright. Interestingly, another theory is that the deaths are linked to shifts in the Earth's magnetic field, which birds are able to sense because they have a crystal of magnetite in their heads (part of their navigational system). It should be mentioned that mass bird deaths aren't so rare during migrations...but it's not migration season.
• Girl Discovers Supernova. Ten-year-old Kathryn Gray, the daughter of an amateur astronomer from the Canadian province of New Brunswick (Maine's next-door neighbor), became the youngest person ever to discover one of the bright, huge exploding stars. She found it in a galaxy 240 million light years away, meaning the explosion happened that long ago and the light is just now reaching us. Over billions of years supernovas have created many of the elements in the universe, including those found in the Earth (hence the molten iron-and-nickel outer core that creates the magnetic field) and even those in our bodies. As an astronomy-savvy young boy declared to me at The Naturalist's Notebook two summers ago, "We're all made of exploded stars!"
• Record Price for Vanishing Bluefin Tuna. We devoted an entire wall at the Notebook this year to the problem of overfishing. It has depleted the world's large-fish population by 90 percent. One of the most notable species threatened by human appetite is the bluefin tuna, a prize catch for sushi and sashimi eaters. Thus this week's celebratory headline "Bluefin Tuna Gets Record Price ($396,000) at Japanese Auction" was no reason for celebration. The price for bluefin tuna keeps rising because demand is growing and the fish are harder to find. If you want to learn more about the bluefin tuna, do a search for oceanographer and writer Carl Safina, who has been a leader in the fight to protect the fish.
English physicist, cosmologist and author Stephen Hawking turns 69. A quote from him: "When one's expectations are reduced to zero, one really appreciates everything one does have."