More razorbills in Florida than ever


Trey Mitchell’s beautiful shot of a Razorbill bobbing about in nearly tropical waters

From 10,000 Birds blog:

The Razorbill Invasion of Florida

By Carlos • December 27, 2012

Razorbills (Alca torda) have invaded the coastal waters of Florida on an unprecedented scale this December of 2012. To put this invasion into perspective, there were only 14 documented records of Razorbill for the entire state before December 2012. This invasion has produced several documented sightings of flocks with well over a hundred individuals! The first sighting was of an individual seen and photographed right off the pier at Boynton Inlet on December 9, 2012. Many state listers immediately chased it even though the bird was very mobile and did not offer good looks for most who tried.

On December 11, 2012, an observer saw one at Government Cut in Miami-Dade right off the pier which was quickly followed by a sighting of three birds off Singer Island in Palm Beach, two birds filmed off Fort Lauderdale, and another bird photographed off Crandon Beach in Key Biscayne — already an unprecedented number of records. However, the true scope of the irruption was not apparent until people started chartering fishing boats to explore the waters just offshore where they were greeted by flocks of hundreds of Razorbills!

Listservs across the state suddenly lit up with posts about where and how many of these alcids were being seen, with records streaming in from such unlikely places as Dry Tortugas National Park, Key West, Fort de Soto, and as far west as Pensacola — there had been only one previous record of this species in the Gulf of Mexico before 2012.

Razorbills primarily feed on capelin, sandlance, herring, and other small fish in the productive waters of the cold North Atlantic, with large numbers wintering in the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy in the extreme northeastern United States and maritime provinces of Canada.

There is a reason why birds (and mammals and large, predatory sharks) like alcids, albatrosses, penguins, and other seabirds are restricted to the poles or areas of cold water upwellings — tropical waters lack the ability to hold onto as much oxygen as colder water. Also, tropical waters lack the dynamics for significant upwellings of cold, nutrient rich water to reach the surface and feed the extreme density of plankton that feed the vast schools of fish these birds rely upon. Why have these birds decided to fly so far south of their normal wintering range, and is it somehow connected to the fact that nearly all birds that have been documented are first year birds?

Sea surface temperatures off of New England and Nova Scotia have been unseasonably warm for the past few Decembers

Looking at the maps … by NOAA that measure sea surface temperature deviation from the average, one can see that temperatures have been unusually high in early December off the coast of New England for the past four years. Why would Razorbills be irrupting now if the above average sea surface temperature anomaly has been a near permanent fixture for the past four years or more?

The only unusual event that occurred this year that seems to match up nicely with the Florida invasion is Hurricane Sandy, an incredibly large and nearly unprecedented storm that hit the mid-Atlantic and New England in late October. Hurricane Sandy was an unusual beast not only for its unique landfall location and approach, but also its incredible size. As the storm was pulled northward across Cuba and the Bahamas, it began to temporarily weaken, lose convection, and suffer from dry air intrusion before it began interacting with an incoming trough. Due to the angle of the trough and the positioning of a high pressure system over Greenland, the storm began to curve northwestward and become re-energized due to baroclinic forcing — a process which also caused the windfield to expand and make Sandy the largest hurricane in diameter in the history of the Atlantic.

To put this bit of trivia into perspective, there were simultaneous tropical storm warnings for both New York City and Bermuda — a distance of about 770 miles! Her enormous windfield also resulted in a record amount of surge water being moved. The impacts of such enormous hurricanes and their accompanying surge on marine ecosystems are not well studied or understood but it may be related to the unprecedented invasion of Razorbills in Florida.

One theory is that Razorbills, which had a very good nesting season this year, irrupted in large numbers due to the fact that there was a collapse in food availability in their normal wintering range with a simultaneous bumper crop of first winter birds, causing most of the first year birds to migrate south in search of better feeding opportunities. Although birds have been seen around the entire coast of the state, there are no reports west of Pensacola yet and may never happen due to the turbidity caused by the Mississippi River. Perhaps more due to being underbirded, there have been no reports of Razorbills from Cuba or the Bahamas (both would be first national records). This irruption will likely be discussed and studied for years to come. For the time being, Florida birders are being treated to a (hopefully) once in a life time event.

Beautiful rare Scottish shells discovery


This video, recorded in Greece, is called Limaria hians.

From daily The Morning Star in Britain:

Flame shells reef is a giant

Thursday 27 December 2012

A large shellfish reef found on the west coast of Britain could be the biggest of its kind ever discovered.

More than 100 million brightly coloured and rare shellfish have been found in Loch Alsh, a sea inlet between Skye and the Scottish mainland.

The reef of flame shells, or Limaria hians, was found to cover an area of 4.6 square miles during a survey commissioned by Marine Scotland.

It is the largest known colony of flame shells in Britain and possibly the world, according to experts.

Scottish Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead said today: “The seas around Scotland are a hotbed of biodiversity and the clean and cold waters support many fascinating and beautiful species.

“With Scottish waters covering an area around five times bigger than our landmass, it’s a huge challenge to try and understand more about our diverse and precious sea life.”

See also here.

Two marine surveys set to discover more about Scotland’s underwater wildlife: here.

The Hobbit, new film, review


This video is called The Hobbit Full Length Trailer # 2 HD.

By Christine Schofelt:

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey—not so unexpected as all that

27 December 2012

Directed by Peter Jackson, screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro, based on the book by J.R.R. Tolkien

Filmed as a prequel to the Lord of the Rings series, this first part of The Hobbit covers approximately half the popular fantasy novel by J.R.R. Tolkien (published in 1937). It opens with an aged Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), a hobbit (a fictional species with many human qualities), writing out his tale in the idyllic shire of Bag End.

The Hobbit

As Bilbo narrates, we meet his younger self (Martin Freeman), who lives a sedentary life in his hobbit hole and wants nothing more than a relaxed and peaceful existence. This is not to be, as he’s been chosen by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to aid a pack of thirteen dwarves in their quest to reclaim their mountain home (and the gold therein) from the dragon Smaug.

The arrival of the dwarves at Bilbo’s dwelling is chaotic and disturbing for the hobbit. The dwarves eat too much and too noisily, and are generally rude. It is only when Gandalf returns that their reason for being there at all comes clear to Baggins.

Some of the dwarves look askance at Gandalf’s choice of Baggins to be their “burglar,” especially dwarf prince Thorin (Richard Armitage). Bilbo initially refuses to sign the contract offered him. By morning’s light, the house is spotless, the sun shines calmly and the visitors are gone. Bilbo looks about, and quickly decides to join the dwarves.

On their first night out, the company, except for Gandalf, is captured by three hungry trolls. Bilbo makes himself useful by delaying the trolls, and the wizard’s intervention saves the day. Gandalf subsequently finds an elven sword in the trolls’ cave just Bilbo’s size and gives it to the hobbit. At Bilbo’s protests that he wouldn’t know what to do with it, Gandalf insists, “Courage is not about knowing when to take a life, but when to spare one.”

Such dialogue as there is in Peter Jackson’s film is generally of this simplistic kind. McKellen and the others, all fine actors, deserve better. Further, it is only when such lines are delivered that the action pauses. Meaningful looks are exchanged briefly, and the audience is expected to nod along with the wisdom as the music swells emotively.

One evening, the group is camping out when they hear ominous sounds. When one of the dwarves scoff at the idea they might be attacked, he is taken to task by an older one who tells the tale, via vertiginous flashback, of the loss of the dwarves’ home, Erebor, through the usurpation by Smaug, and the subsequent battles to retake it. He focuses on one particular battle with the orcs (evil, ape-like creatures) in which Thorin showed himself a true leader by snicking off an arm of the chief orc, Azog.

This battle, like others in The Hobbit : An Unexpected Journey, is portrayed primarily through computer-generated images. The scale of the fighting—the entire screen is filled with tiny writhing figures—creates confusion. The howls of combat and the focus on particular acts of violence do little to clarify the situation, and the scene is made comprehensible only through the elder dwarf’s narration. The actors involved are visually treated in such a way that gives the impression that they too are computer-generated or articulated models, and the overall effect is that of a high-quality video game.

The villainous Azog, a mere name in Tolkien’s book, was presumed dead after that battle, but is a persistent foe for Thorin in the film: providing an excuse for running, growling creatures, as well as excessive battle scenes and chases. His menacing appearance is familiar—the hulking, muscular and angry type having been seen in Prometheus this past summer, for example. Indeed, quite a bit about Jackson’s film is familiar.

Obviously designed for 3D-equipped theaters, The Hobbit ’s scenery is unrelentingly huge—vast sweeping landscapes give way to enormous underground caverns or claustrophobic crevices. Each successive kingdom seems to come with a perilous bridge over a drop into distant nothingness. Boulders roll toward the audience, flying debris comes at one … and on and on, forever on, until it seems no cliché is left unplumbed when it comes to falling, being smooshed or otherwise tricked into a sense of vertigo.

Considering what can be done with 3D, one hopes for more when the technology is made available to those who begin from an imaginative starting point. Unfortunately, the primary aim of Jackson and company seems not to be bringing a good story or otherwise to life, but rather distracting the audience from what might be lacking.

The use of bombastic battle scenes and the near-elimination of some actors behind CGI imagery meant to terrify or startle can only go so far, as the action does little to move the story forward, and the patience of all but the most die-hard fans will be sorely tested by The Hobbit ’s near-three-hour length.

During a visit to Rivendell, the elven outpost, Gandalf declares, “I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.” This is not a line from the book, though it does express a sentiment Tolkien might have subscribed to. These are incongruous words, however, in this adaptation, which goes to great lengths to depict violence and acts of honor.

The scenes involving Gollum (Andy Serkis), whom Baggins meets alone in a cavern, do provide an interesting interlude. One cannot help but feel for the creature, driven mad from isolation, when he realizes he has lost his ring to Baggins. This is also one of the few places that Baggins is allowed to develop at all. Freeman takes full advantage of the opportunity, and his grudging mercy at the end of the scene, although we know the ultimate outcome of that relationship, is a convincing relief.

The final battle scene of the film allows Baggins a chance to play the hero. This is depicted as an unexpected twist. However, for all the surprise portrayed by those onscreen, it is unlikely there are many who did not see it coming. As with so much else in the film, the storyline of The Hobbit has a predictability that does not stem solely from familiarity with the book on which it is based.

In the end, the company looks to a distant mountaintop, on which can be descried a creature and a locale critical to the subsequent development of Tolkien’s story. And so the scene is set for the next installment.

The author also recommends:

Tolkien and the flight from modern life
[21 March 2002]

New Zealand Hobbit premiere used to drive “international competitiveness” agenda
[13 December 2012]

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: The filmmakers waste considerable talent and skill: here.

The Tolkien nerd’s guide to “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”: here.

Good Asian tiger news


This video is called The Truth About Tigers – Part 1 – a film by Shekar Dattatri.

This is Part 2.

And here is Part 3.

From Wildlife Extra:

Good news for tigers in India, Thailand and Russia

Tigers Roar Back: Good news for iconic big cats in India, Thailand, and Russia at last

December 2012. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has announced significant progress for tigers in three key landscapes across the big cat’s range due to better law enforcement, protection of additional habitat, and strong government partnerships.

The successes are much-needed good news as tiger numbers worldwide continue to hover at all-time lows due to the combined threat of poaching, loss of prey, and habitat destruction. It is thought that only 3,200 tigers exist in the wild.

Indian tiger numbers soar in Western Ghats

The news begins in south-western India where WCS research and conservation efforts that began 25 years ago now show a major rebound of tigers in the Western Ghats region of Karnataka State. Over 600 individuals have been identified to date from camera trap photos during the last decade in this mountainous landscape.

Saturation levels

In Nagarahole and Bandipur National Parks, tigers have actually reached saturation levels, with surplus young tigers spilling out into forest-reserves and dispersing using secured forest corridors through a landscape that holds over a million human beings. The combination of strict government-led anti-poaching patrols, voluntary relocation of villages away from tiger habitats, and the vigilant local presence of WCS conservation partners watching over tigers has led to the rebound of big-cat populations and their prey. In newer tiger reserves including Bhadra and Kudremukh, numbers have increased by as much as 50 percent after years of neglect and chronic poaching were tackled.

Thailand sees record tiger numbers in key protected area

In Thailand, WCS conservationists report a tiger comeback in Huai Kha Khaeng (HKK) Wildlife Sanctuary – a 2,700 square kilometre (1,042 square mile) protected area in the vast Western Forest Complex. WCS has worked closely with Thai authorities to beef up enforcement and anti-poaching patrols in the region. Last year, a notorious poaching ring was busted, and this year the gang leaders were given prison sentences of up to five years – the most severe punishments for wildlife poaching in Thailand’s history. Since their capture, there have been no known tiger or elephant poaching incidents in the park. Tiger numbers have been rising steadily in the park since 2007, with a record 50-plus tigers counted last year.

Russia develops new anti-poaching laws and protected areas

Meanwhile in Russia, government officials are drafting a new law that will make transport, sales, and possession of endangered animals a criminal offense rather than just a civil crime. This will close a loophole that currently allows poachers to claim they found endangered species like tigers already dead and thus avoid stiffer criminal penalties for poaching.

New protected areas

Russia is making progress in creating additional protected areas for tigers, too, declaring a new corridor called Central Ussuri Wildlife Refuge on October 18. The new refuge acts as a linkage between the Sikhote-Alin tiger population in Russia, which is the main population of Amur tigers, and some of the best tiger habitat in China’s Heilongjiang Province in the Wandashan Mountains. The creation of the new refuge ensures that tigers have the capacity to move across the international border between Russian and China in this region. WCS first identified this key corridor in 1999 after conducting joint wildlife surveys with Chinese and Russian scientists there.

WCS President and CEO Cristián Samper said: “Tigers are clearly fighting for their very existence, but it’s important to know that there is hope. Victories like these give us the resolve to continue to battle for these magnificent big cats. While the news about tigers has been bleak, these recent developments clearly show how smart strategies and strong partnerships are ensuring tigers are saved for centuries to come.”

WCS is looking to replicate these successes in other parts of the tiger’s range. WCS has over 300 people working on the ground to conserve tigers in the most important tiger sites in seven of the ten remaining countries with tigers. We collaborate with local governments and partners to implement a suite of proven tiger conservation interventions, including improved law enforcement and enlarging and consolidating tiger habitat, that are tailored to each specific country and site.

Iraq war infant birth defects


This video is called Cancer Birth Defects, Depleted Uranium, 2012, Fallujah, Iraq, Europe.

By Eric London:

US munitions cause spike in Iraqi infant birth defects

27 December 2012

Though it has been nearly a decade since the beginning of the US-led invasion of Iraq, a report from the Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology released in September reveals the devastating impact that the war is continuing to have on the Iraqi people—particularly Iraqi infants.

According to the study, titled “Metal Contamination and the Epidemic of Congenital Birth Defects in Iraqi Cities,” the Iraqi cities of Basra and Fallujah are experiencing an exponential rise in birth defects, allegedly caused by the use of depleted uranium ammunition by the United States and British invasion forces.

The German-based Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology survey reported that half of the infants it surveyed who were born between 2007 and 2010 were born with a birth defect. This figure was less than 2 percent before 2000. In Basra, the southern Iraqi city and site of a massive bombing campaign undertaken at the start of the invasion in March and April 2003, the birth defect rate was 17 times higher than before the 2003 invasion.

“Some [infants] had only one eye in the forehead. Or two heads. One had a tail like a skinned lamb. Another one looked like a perfectly normal child, but with a monkey’s face. Or the girl whose legs had grown together, half fish, half human,” Basra children’s cemetery owner Askar Bin Said told Der Spiegel.

Chemist Chris Busby, the co-author of two studies on the subject, told the Guardian that Fallujah is experiencing “the highest rate of genetic damage in any population ever studied.”

Hair sample studies performed in 2010 by Bulletin researchers revealed that lead levels were five times higher in Fallujah children than in other children. Mercury levels were six times higher. Diagnosed cases of hydrocephalus, or “water in the brain,” are six times higher in Basra children than in children from the United States. Basra is also experiencing the highest ever rate of spina bifida, or “open back disease.” In total, over 45 percent of pregnancies ended in miscarriage between 2004 and 2006.

Dr. Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, a lead author of the report and an environmental toxicologist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, told the Independent that “the massive and repeated bombardment of these cities is clearly implicated here. I have no knowledge of any alternative source of metal contamination in these areas.”

According to Dr. Savabieasfahani, there is now a “footprint of metal in the population” and “compelling evidence linking the staggering increases in Iraqi birth defects to neuro-toxic metal contamination following the repeated bombardments of Iraqi cities.”

Moreover, the data reported by the study was most likely an “underestimate,” according to Dr. Savabieasfahani, on account of many parents’ attempts to hide their children’s defects from public view.

The unprecedented health crisis facing the bombed-out targets of American imperialism is apparently the result of the use of “depleted uranium” ammunition used by the United States and British armed forces during the invasion and occupation. “DU” ammunition contains alloys or cores made of depleted uranium. The added density the uranium gives to projectiles allows bullets and shells to pierce bodies and metal with increased facility.

When the ammunition explodes or hits a target, it releases a chemical dust that is inhaled or permeates through the skin of its victim.

In other words, the advanced weaponry utilized by the US with the express goal of facilitating the destruction of Iraqi towns and cities has achieved its goal: local populations will quite literally be feeling the pain of the invasion for generations to come. Infants born even after the public “withdrawal” of invasion troops are killed as a result of the impact of the invasion on young Iraqi mothers and fathers.

“The war is to blame. The pollution. There were many bombs in our neighborhood,” said Sabra Salman, the mother of a 10 year-old child with cancer, to Der Spiegel.

Mohammad Haider, a Basra parent of a deformed child, also told Der Spiegel that he and his wife “both grew up in Basra. I hold the United States responsible. They used DU. My child isn’t an isolated case.”

New lizard species discovery in Australia


Brightly coloured male of the Elegant Rainbow Skink, photo Hoskin CJ / Couper PJ /James Cook University

Brightly coloured male of the Orange-flanked Rainbow Skink, photo Hoskin CJ / Couper PJ /James Cook University

From Wildlife Extra:

Two new lizard species discovered in Australia

Two new lizard species discovered in the Townsville area of Queensland

December 2012. The Elegant Rainbow Skink and the Orange-flanked Rainbow Skink were originally thought to be members of the Open-litter Rainbow Skink species, but detailed work has revealed that they are separate species.

Dr Conrad Hoskin from JCU’s School of Marine and Tropical Biology, and Patrick Couper from the Queensland Museum discovered the two new species. “Both species are small skinks belonging to the genus Carlia, a diverse group of skinks in tropical Australia,” Dr Hoskin said.

“The species names (the Elegant Rainbow Skink – Carlia decora – and the Orange-flanked Rainbow Skink – Carlia rubigo – are in reference to the bright colours sported by breeding males of each species; ‘decora’ means ‘beautiful’ in Latin, with males of that species marked with vivid orange and blue, while ‘rubigo’ translates to ‘rust’, referring to the rusty orange colour of males of that species.”

Dr Hoskin said the Elegant Rainbow Skink was found in forests in the Townsville and Mackay areas.

“It is one of the most common skinks in Townsville gardens and would be familiar to many Townsville residents as the small skink that scurries away into the garden bed. However, the Orange-flanked Rainbow Skink is found in drier areas of eastern and Central Queensland, preferring open forests and rocky areas. It is not found right in Townsville but lives on the rocky ranges around Townsville like Magnetic Island, Cape Cleveland and Herveys Range. The best place to see it around Townsville is Magnetic Island, where it is the most common lizard.”

Third new species

Dr Hoskin said a third species was also described in the paper, the Whitsunday Rainbow Skink (Carlia inconnexa).

“This species had previously been recognized as a subspecies of another skink species, but our research found that it was sufficiently different from all other populations that it should be elevated from subspecies to full species status.

TheWhitsunday Rainbow Skink is only found on Whitsunday, Hook, Hayman and Lindeman Islands. The species name ‘inconnexa’ means ‘unjoined’, in reference to the isolation of this skink on islands.

The three new species resulted from a detailed study of the widespread Open-litter Rainbow Skink (Carlia pectoralis).

The study looked in detail at morphology, colour pattern and genetics of all populations thought to be this species and found that in reality Carlia pectoralis actually consisted of four species that are genetically distinct and can be identified based on morphology and colour pattern.

“It just goes to show that we still haven’t discovered all the diversity that’s out there, even in a fairly well known group like lizards in a fairly well studied area like eastern Australia,” he said.

“More and more we are finding that species we thought were widespread in eastern and tropical Australia are in fact composed of multiple species that have been overlooked because they look approximately similar. It’s only when we look in detail that we find that there are very interesting new species hidden in there.”

Dr Hoskin said while scientists had always known that these skinks existed, they had been calling several species by one name.

“It would be like calling the Eastern Grey Kangaroo, Western Grey Kangaroo and Red Kangaroo one species, the ‘Kangaroo’,” he said.

“In the case of these skinks, one of them isn’t even the closest relative of the others, it just happens to have scale characteristics that meant it was incorrectly lumped in with Carlia pectoralis when the original taxonomy was done. It is exciting that in this day and age we can realise that the most common skink in Townsville gardens is in fact a new species that needed a scientific name. When we don’t even have the taxonomy of common backyard creatures sorted out, it shows just how much undescribed diversity is still out there to be discovered.”

Dr Hoskin said the new lizards were described and given scientific names in a recent paper published in the international journal Zootaxa.

See also here. And here. And here.