fieldnotes

 

Restoration
Buoying Hope on the Bayou

On a typically sweltering day in southern Louisiana this past June, 50 volunteers, including preteens and grandparents, slogged through wet, thigh-high earth on Fourchon beach to plug 11,000 smooth cordgrass plants into a manmade mud platform. It was hot, dirty work, but they may have saved a beach, along with the least terns and endangered piping plovers that seek refuge there. The effort is part of a massive ecological project that rivals the $8 billion Everglades restoration now under way in Florida. The ambitious Louisiana plan, which would cost an estimated $14 billion, aims to restore and create almost a half-million acres of wetlands by 2050. A diverse alliance of scientists, state and federal agencies, energy executives, commercial-fishing groups, and environmental organizations support the campaign. Louisianans believe the modest 45 acres of marsh rebuilt on Fourchon beach in June will help save their state from sinking further into the Gulf of Mexico.

Time is running out. Low-lying Louisiana loses about a football-field-size chunk of land every half-hour, as invading salt water from the Gulf of Mexico licks away at the state's wounded marshes. In the past 50 years about 1,500 square miles—an area larger than Rhode Island—have been erased. While a nearly $2 billion, short-term restoration plan, to begin in 2006, was recently supported by the White House (Congressional approval is pending), Louisianans are going ahead with their own initiatives, including the $800,000 Fourchon restoration. "This project can be used as a model," says Mitchell Pitre, a landscape contractor who grew many of the plants for the restoration. "What really needs to be done, though, is huge."

Photograph by Bruce Coleman Inc.

The crisis began about 300 years ago when the French tried to control the Mississippi River and its periodic flooding by building levees. In 1928 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assumed responsibility for constructing and maintaining what has become more than 2,000 miles of walls, depriving the delta of the millions of acres of sediment and fresh water that kept it alive. Oil and gas development in the state has also sliced canals into the fragile ecosystem, accelerating the erosion. (About 18 percent of U.S. oil and 24 percent of U.S. natural gas is extracted from Louisiana.)

In coastal areas, where millions live, there is a palpable sense of urgency. "I really worry about the people in south Louisiana," says Brian Kendrick, a civil engineer who worked at Fourchon. Residents face potentially fatal floods when storms and hurricanes batter the coastline. Biologists also fret over the fate of the millions of migratory birds that depend on the nutrient-rich waters, grasses, mangrove forests, and cypress swamps of the disappearing wetlands. "It's a challenging time for both the birds and the environmental community," says Don Norman, a biologist and wildlife consultant, who grew up in Louisiana. Studies show that a $26 million structure that restores freshwater flow, built in southeast Louisiana in 1991, has been a boon to waterfowl, but the undertaking has also incited controversial legal battles with oyster fishers, who claim the restoration put them out of business.

"That's just the tip of the iceberg," says Shea Penland, a geologist at the Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Sciences at the University of New Orleans, referring to other looming conflicts between the restoration plan's multiple stakeholders. "In some cases oil and gas infrastructures are going to have to be moved to allow restoration to take place," he says.

But the energy industry is also at risk. Due to rapid coastal erosion, fuel pipes originally buried under the soil are now being exposed to open tides, wind, storms, and corrosive salt water. "Ultimately," adds Penland, "they benefit from the restoration."

—J.M. McCord


Open Space
The Public Speaks

The residents of Tucson, Arizona, one of the fastest-growing regions in the country, are making a big investment in conservation. In May voters there overwhelmingly approved a $174.3 million bond measure to purchase and safeguard up to 190,000 acres of critical Sonoran Desert habitat, which more than 250 species—including the pygmy owl, mountain lion, and desert tortoise (above)—rely on for refuge.

"It's the first time [Pima] county has looked at protection of natural resources as the backbone of how we are going to grow," says Carolyn Campbell, executive director of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, a diverse alliance of 41 community and environmental groups that promoted the initiative. "With 65 percent of all voters turning out in its favor, this bond's passage says a lot about the public's support of open space," adds Sonja Macys, executive director of Tucson Audubon, a leading member of the coalition.

That support is part of a national trend that has been building for 40 years. Green Acres, the nation's first public open-space bond, was approved in New Jersey in 1961. Through the 1970s and 1980s conservation ballot measures slowly gained momentum in heavily developed areas on the East Coast. By the mid-1990s widespread concerns about sprawl had triggered a new wave of open-space bids, particularly in the Southwest. In the past six years alone, voters have approved more than $26 billion nationwide to preserve space, farmland and ranchland, parks, and watersheds. These actions seek to counter the annual 2 to 3 million acres that have been lost to development over the past decade. "Unless urban sprawl comes to an end, I think open-space ballot measures are going to continue to grow," says Ernest Cook, director of conservation finance for the Trust for Public Land.

Indeed, this November residents of Utah, Florida, California, Tennessee, and Rhode Island are slated to cast their votes on an additional $617 million for open-space protection. As ballot measures gain momentum nationwide, they are also becoming more effective tools of conservation by focusing in on an area's most critical habitats. The recent passage of Tucson's open-space bond—which marks the first phase of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, a comprehensive environmental-protection and planning blueprint covering nearly 6 million acres—is a prime example. "This bond has set a precedent for all other communities in the Southwest in terms of multispecies habitat-conservation plans," says Campbell. "We are conserving the lands that most need protection to support the greatest amount of species."

—Phil McKenna

 


Q&A
The Seven-Year Hitch

Photograph by Trevor Dixon

Frank Gill's reign as national Audubon's science director is ending after more than seven years, though he'll continue to serve as senior ornithologist. The popular and influential Gill has put Audubon back in the big leagues of ornithology, both in this country and abroad. Audubon recently caught up with him.

Question: What brought you to birds in the first place?
Answer: My grandfather was a birder. When I was a child in New Jersey, he let me use his binoculars to watch a song sparrow splashing in a birdbath. It was so thrilling, I was hooked right away.
Q: How about your training in ornithology?
A: While doing graduate work at the University of Michigan I studied white-eyes on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, where I'd worked earlier on seabirds. Later I studied sunbirds in Kenya.
Q: Where did you finally settle down?
A: In 1969 I went to the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences. When the American Ornithological Union [AOU] wanted to bring A. C. Bent's Life Histories of bird species up to date, I volunteered to take on the project as general editor. Life Histories begat The Birds of North America: Life Histories for the 21st Century. A team of 863 ornithologists have written 716 accounts for 749 species—18,000 pages in 18 volumes. My coeditor and colleague Alan Poole now runs the project from Cornell, where it will go online and be constantly updated as a living database.
Q: Meanwhile, you served as president of the AOU and your book, Ornithology, became the standard college text on the subject. Anything new there?
A: The book is now my main focus. The third edition is long overdue, so I'll be pushing to have a manuscript by March of 2005 for publication in September.
Q: You may be most remembered here for getting National Audubon's part in the Important Bird Areas program off the ground. What does the IBA designation actually mean for a locality?
A: It raises public consciousness about bird conservation in that particular place. It says, in effect, that the place is a member of a globally recognized community of sites—10,000 worldwide—vital for the survival of certain birds or groups of birds. In the United States we have IBAs established now in 46 states. It's a grassroots-driven system, going hand in hand with backyard programs that, with the Lab of Ornithology at Cornell playing a big role, are already taking hold. The next step will be a hemispheric IBA program, including all of the Americas.
Q: What have been your most satisfying accomplishments and fondest memories?
A: Making citizen science a centerpiece of the Audubon portfolio, meeting chapter leaders all over the country, and just being the "bird guy" at Audubon.


—Frank Graham Jr.


Renewable Energy
Breath of Fresh Air

Pleasant Valley will soon be an even nicer place to live than its name would suggest. In June it became the first town in New York to acquire all its electricity from wind turbines, thus joining an increasing number of businesses, colleges, and townships nationwide that are switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy. "We want to do our part to make the air cleaner and help the environment," says John McNair, the Republican town supervisor.

It's no small part. The electricity Pleasant Valley purchases from a wind farm outside Syracuse creates zero pollution. That means the juice powering the town's lights, office buildings, and ball fields will no longer be responsible for emitting the annual equivalent of 356,000 pounds of carbon dioxide, a main global warming gas.

Improved technology and rising demand have cut the price of wind power. (Acknowledging a growing controversy over potential harm to birds, Audubon New York just passed a resolution supporting "wind power as a clean, renewable source with few environmental impacts" but called for surveys in "high-risk areas" to mitigate mortality.) In Pleasant Valley, 90 miles north of New York City, the change will cost the town's 10,000 residents less than an extra $2 per year, per household, says McNair, who signed the agreement with Community Energy, a company that represents wind farms across the Northeast. So far 23 New York municipalities—along with dozens of universities, businesses, and government institutions—have signed on to buy the company's wind power.

It helps that George Pataki, New York's environmentally minded Republican governor, has pledged that by 2013 the state will get a quarter of its power from wind, solar, and other renewable resources. Health concerns are a key factor for wind converts. A new study from Abt Associates, a consulting firm, found that air pollution from power plants causes the premature deaths of 23,600 Americans each year, mostly from respiratory and cardiac ailments. The analysis also reported that hundreds of thousands more suffer from asthma attacks, heart problems, and respiratory diseases as a result of soot from sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions.

"People don't really know where their energy comes from, or what the impacts are," says McNair, urging other towns to follow Pleasant Valley's lead. "I feel like the more people who get involved, all of us will breathe cleaner air, and live a little longer."

—Keith Kloor


Tribute
A Teacher for the Ages

Photograph by Elissa Landre

Ornithology lost a pioneer and a legend in May with the passing of Alexander F. Skutch at his farm in the Costa Rican rainforest, a week short of his 100th birthday. A native of Baltimore, Skutch went to the tropics in the 1920s as a botanist to study the banana for the United Fruit Company. He soon fell in love with the astonishing birds, and studied them for the next 75 years. As a vegetarian and teetotaler, he needed little to live on. Skutch (right, with his wife, Pamela) rode through Central America on a horse, eventually making known in scientific papers and books the life histories of hundreds of neotropical birds. In 1941 he bought a farm, Los Cusingos, in southern Costa Rica, where he researched and wrote about birds—including several Audubon articles in the 1940s—for the rest of his life.

He was the first ornithologist to point out the phenomenon of "helpers at nests"—usually relatives of parent birds that help with rearing their young. Skutch, who was also a student of philosophy and religions, ventured that human life is not purposeless. Rather, the moments of intense pleasure we experience in our encounters with nature may well justify our existence. In his life, and in the delightful Edwardian prose of more than two dozen books, Alexander Skutch taught several generations of naturalists how to care about the natural world.

—Frank Graham Jr.

Paper or Plastic?
For almost 30 years, since plastic bags were introduced at grocery-store checkout counters, environmentally conscious customers have wrestled with this cosmic choice. The best answer: neither. Truly responsible consumers tote reusable grocery sacks, although only about 1 percent of Americans do. Some U.S. stores encourage this behavior by offering a small refund to customers who bring their own bags. Ireland takes the opposite tack: Shoppers who request plastic grocery bags are taxed. The average American uses 600 to 1,200 grocery bags a year. It costs about one cent to produce a plastic bag and three times that much for paper. Roughly half the nation's grocers recycle plastic bags, and most recycling programs accept paper bags. Still, 10 billion paper bags are used each year in the United States, contributing to the destruction of 14 million trees. Annually, an additional 30 billion plastic bags end up lining trash bins, choking animals, or simply cluttering landfills for what will be hundreds of years. Check out www.reusablebags.com for more information—and some stylish and long-lasting shopping sacks.

—J.M. McCord


At-Risk Species
Drills Cause Ills?

After Brett Walker found one of his radio-collared greater sage grouses in the Wyoming plains, he realized immediately something was wrong. "Her head was tipped over, and her wings were drooping," says Walker, a biologist at the University of Montana in Missoula. Fifteen minutes later the grouse was dead. Within a matter of days, 7 out of 11 radio-collared birds were found facedown in the dirt. Lab results later revealed they all died of the same cause: West Nile virus. The deaths were part of a wave of West Nile casualties that ravaged the West in 2003, killing 182 birds in Wyoming and more than a thousand throughout the Rocky Mountain states. (Some experts say the toll could be thousands of times higher.)

Photograph by Joel Sartore

At first biologists were puzzled, because there aren't many mosquitoes (the carrier of West Nile) on the sere plains, at least not enough to explain the large number of sage grouse (above) and other birds being killed. Streams and ponds dry up in summer, and most water comes from wells, so there are few places for the insects to breed. Additionally, the interior West has been in a severe drought for the past six years.

Then Walker and other researchers considered that coal-bed methane drilling was booming across the parched Wyoming landscape. Like a sponge, underground coal beds hold a mixture of water and methane gas. Energy companies pump out the water, extract the gas, and leave huge amounts of water behind on the surface. As a result the treeless plains are now dotted with thousands of shimmering ponds the size of swimming pools. "Our hypothesis is that mosquitoes are being produced in the coal-bed methane developments," says Greg Johnson, an entomologist at Montana State University in Bozeman, who is studying the spread of mosquitoes in the region.

If this proves true, the problem is likely to worsen: 19,000 coal-bed methane wells have already been drilled in Wyoming, and 32,000 more are in the planning stages. Though the evidence is still inconclusive—a study last year found no link between West Nile infections and coal-bed methane development—some aren't taking any chances. In June Wyoming's governor, Democrat David Freudenthal, called for a one-year moratorium on any new coal-bed methane drilling near sage grouse habitat. Moreover, because invasive species and development have significantly eroded the sage grouse's ecological territory, environmentalists are now lobbying for the bird to be listed as a federally protected endangered species.

—Jim Robbins

 


 


© 2004 National Audubon Society
 

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Illustrations by Gary Hovland

 

A Cross to Bear

White crosses staked along winding roadsides have long commemorated human victims of car accidents. Now a Montana-based conservation group, the Great Bear Foundation, is
introducing similar markers for road-killed grizzlies. "We're doing it partly to honor the bears and also to remind people to be careful," says bear researcher and the foundation's president, Charles Jonkel. The group plans to erect six metal bear silhouettes near Glacier and Yellowstone national parks in the spots where grizzlies have been killed in recent years. Jonkel notes that the bears mostly come out at night and that younger, less experienced ones make up the majority of fatalities. The four-foot signs, which the group plans to have up by the end of September, are flexible and designed to flap down if hit. Jonkel's more immediate concern, however, is that the unique signs will be lifted. "We will try to bury them deep so they aren't stolen, especially in the fall, when students are decorating their dorm rooms," he says.

—Phil McKenna


Student Trackers

For years biologists have used satellite transmitters to pinpoint the locations of everything from wandering albatrosses to mountain gorillas. Now the technology is being used in middle schools to teach concepts of animal behavior, ecology, and geography. Since 2002, students in a number of states have used Eye of the Falcon software to follow yearly bird migrations (such as those of peregrine falcons and white pelicans) as far south as Brazil. Jennifer McDermott, a fifth-grade science teacher at the McDonogh School near Baltimore, used the program in her class this spring to track juvenile bald eagles in Chesapeake Bay. In addition to charting the birds' movements, McDermott's students overlaid land-cover maps on top of the birds' locations. "We determined that the types of habitat they preferred were fields and forests close to the water," McDermott says. "Very rarely were the eagles in developed areas. It really let the kids see the relation between development and where birds live around the bay." For more information, log on to www.earthspan.org/education.htm.

—Phil McKenna

 

Follow That Rock

Thanks to some high-tech sleuthing, researchers in Arizona are gaining new insight into the secret lives of rocks. It's long been known that normally sedentary rocks, peaceably nestled in desert washes, can suddenly move great
distances during the roaring flash floods of the summer monsoon season. The sediment transported by these bursts can, over time, fill reservoirs, undermine bridges, and literally reshape landscapes. But Mary Nichols, a hydraulic scientist at the USDA's Agricultural Research Service in Tucson, points out that the bursts have been hard to study because they're so strong and fast. But now she is changing that with a study that borrows techniques from the world of espionage. Nichols has embedded transponders in 300 fake, racquetball-size rocks and placed them in dry streambeds. By radio-tracking the undercover rocks as they move downstream, the study should provide a better understanding of their clandestine movements and of larger erosion patterns in the arid Southwest.

—Aaron Teasdale

 

Keep Pythons Indoors

A Burmese python wrangles with an American alligator for more than 24 hours. No, it's not a reality-TV stunt; it's reality in the Everglades. Nearly 70 Burmese pythons, released by their owners, have been removed from the swamps of Florida since the early
1980s, and countless others go undetected, says Skip Snow, a wildlife biologist with the National Park Service. The constrictors do not pose a serious threat to alligators or crocodiles—the alligator won the witnessed showdown and sent the python packing. However, the pythons could threaten native wood storks and mangrove fox squirrels. "They have the capability to take an animal the size of a small leopard," says Snow. Plus the invasive pythons are breeding. Last April a 12-footer was found carrying 46 eggs. A python can grow to 20 feet and survive for up to 30 years. They sell for as little as $20 in flea markets and pet stores. Snow is currently designing a trap to evict the park's snake invaders, and he's trying to educate Florida residents about responsible snake ownership, as well. The main message is, don't throw your snake out in the swamp water. "They don't belong here," he says.

—J.M. McCord


What a Gas

When half a million swine poop, you might expect a lot of gas, although not necessarily the sort that powers trucks. But Smithfield Foods, the world's largest porkproducer, is now constructing the country's first large-scale manure-to-biofuel system. The southwestern Utah facility is expected to generate a tanker-load of methanol per day, which the food giant plans to use in the production of biodiesel. "Usually people think of hog waste as something that needs to be disposed," says Dennis Treacy, vice president of environmental affairs at Smithfield Foods. "In this case the end product will be a clean-burning fuel that actually creates revenue." Previously the 500,000 pounds of daily waste decomposed in giant open-air lagoons, which were notorious for ammonia and nitrogen emissions and prone to leaking. The new system, which Smithfield plans to have operational by the end of this year, pipes waste to an on-site treatment facility, where methane is extracted and converted to methanol.

—Phil McKenna


Chirping Chainsaws

A new study reveals that noise pollution in European cities is coming from an unexpected source: singing nightingales. One researcher has discovered that the common brown thrush, in a plucky display of one-upmanship, can dramatically adjust the decibel level of its mate-attracting song to break through the urban din around it—and violate sound-pollution regulations in the process. The loudest recorded nightingale was 95 decibels, which the scientist who conducted the study, Henrik Brumm of Berlin's Free University, described as being as loud as a chainsaw three feet away. Given that even 80 decibels can cause permanent hearing loss in humans, Brumm notes, "a nightingale next to your ear would cause severe damage." More important for the male nightingales, however, female nightingales can hear them just fine.

—Aaron Teasdale



Nonstop Flights

This summer Singapore Airlines launched the world's longest nonstop commercial flight, between New York and Singapore—18 hours, which covers more than 10,000 miles. For record airtime, though, nothing comes close to bar-tailed godwits,
which scientists recently discovered fly nonstop for six days during their yearly migrations. The godwits, which are slightly larger than pigeons, breed in the summer in western Alaska, where they put on more than half their weight as fat by gorging themselves on little clams and worms. "They look like flying boxes," says Robert Gill, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, who helped piece together proof of the long-distance prowess by using historical records of godwit sightings, flight simulations, and body weight/energy calculations. One to three days prior to their record-breaking migration, the godwits absorb part of their digestive system to save on weight. In early autumn the birds hitch onto the tails of typhoons and fly for almost 8,000 miles to eastern Australia and New Zealand. On their own power, the godwits can reach speeds of 45 mph, but with the help of storm winds, they can accelerate to almost 100 mph. When the birds reach their final destination, they practically fall down from exhaustion, says Gill.

—J.M. McCord


Extra Bounce

Kick your old tennis sneakers to the curb for the next recycling pickup. Last year Nike partnered with the National Recycling Coalition (NRC) on a pilot program to help organize a sneaker-recycling effort—no cleats or metal
allowed, but any brand will do. For more than a decade Nike has recycled more than 15 million pairs of shoes—yet those were mainly defective or part of local recycling initiatives. This year Nike and the NRC aim to involve every state in the nation in the Reuse-A-Shoe program. The retired runners end up in Oregon, where they are sliced into three parts—rubber soles, middle foam, and fabric. Once they're dissected, they become "grind material" that is then used to build athletic surfaces like soccer fields and putting greens. One hundred thousand recycled shoes are needed to create a new running track, and about 3,000 can construct a basketball court. For additional information, log on to www.nikereuseashoe.com.

—J.M. McCord

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