california condor faces lead menace

After more than three decades on the brink of extinction, the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) — the largest and most threatened wild bird species in the United States — is making a modest recovery, thanks to intensive captive breeding and medical intervention. But troubling data reported this week suggest that unless hunters change their practices, the condor will require extensive support in perpetuity if it is to survive in the wild.

The cause of the problem is that the condors ingest lead when they feed on the carcasses of animals that hunters have shot. A multidisciplinary study published on 26 June (MFinkelstein et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1203141109; 2012) shows that chronic lead poisoning persists among condors, despite a 2008 California ban on the use of lead shot in regions where the birds are being reintroduced.

Building on earlier studies, the researchers collected feathers and blood samples from trapped birds and found no discernible difference in lead levels before and after the ban. Condors feed by scavenging; the results show that many of those sampled have dangerous levels of lead in their bodies. Lead poisoning can severely damage the birds’ nervous systems and impair liver and kidney function, among other problems, and it can be fatal. The study also found that approximately 20% of condors in the wild have lead levels that are high enough to require costly treatment with chemical agents to remove the toxic metal from their bodies.

“By any measure, the lead poisoning rates in condors are of epidemic proportions,” says Myra Finkelstein, a toxicologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who led the research….

Read the rest at Nature magazine.

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an ill wind: the trouble with turbines

I’ve been following with interest the rapid expansion of wind energy and its impact on wildlife. Excited that I had a chance to delve into the issue for Nature magazine. Here’s how it starts:

Marc Bechard turned a worried eye skywards as he walked among the limestone hills at the southern tip of Spain. It was October 2008, and thousands of griffon vultures — along with other vulnerable raptors — were winging towards the Strait of Gibraltar and beyond to Africa. But first they had to navigate some treacherous airspace. The landscape on either side of the strait bristles with wind turbines up to 170 metres high, armed with blades that slice the air at 270 kilometres per hour.

Bechard, a biologist at Boise State University in Idaho, and colleagues from the Doñana Biological Station in Seville, Spain, had been hired to help the birds make it safely past 13 wind farms in Cádiz province. Each time the researchers spotted a raptor heading towards a turbine, they called the wind farm’s control tower. Within minutes the blades slowed to a stop, and one more migrating bird soared past unharmed. Then the turbine swung back into action.

When the biologists weren’t looking up at the sky, they were scouring the ground for carcasses of griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus), Spanish imperial eagles (Aquila adalberti) and other species. The Spanish Ornithological Society in Madrid estimates that Spain’s 18,000 wind turbines may be killing 6 million to 18 million birds and bats annually. “A blade will cut a griffon vulture in half,” says Bechard. “I’ve seen them just decapitated.”

Read the rest here at Nature.

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pick your poison

I once helped draw blood from a wild falcon, its lithe wings gently lashed, its head covered to calm it. Biologists have been taking such tests for more than thirty years, tracking toxins in the predatory birds as they make landfall after spending months in Central and South America, where chemicals such as DDT and PCB aren’t banned like they are in the United States, since the 1970s. A month earlier I’d heard Charles Henny, a U.S. Geological Survey wildlife biologist with a focus on toxicology, say that by 2004 there was almost no detectable DDT in these falcons, whose populations had crashed due to DDT but then recovered. But there was something new on his radar. “There’s other stuff that’s replaced it,” he said. “My concern right now is the flame retardants.”

Read the rest at Dissent…

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reading & writing

I have fallen in love with many a friend after seeing their bookshelves. Forget the eyes. The books that line the shelves of our homes, or lean in precarious piles on the floor, or crowd out our bedsides, are the windows to one’s soul. We see familiars we have at home, titles we’ve always meant to explore. We discover, always, something new. We see how they organize. Or don’t. We see the merging of a couple’s disparate and/or overlapping tastes and interests. I fantasize about a trip that took a lifetime, just visiting friends around the world and spending all my time reading their books. I fantasize boundless free time at home, to even get through my own.

I remember the moment of awareness that we have been granted a finite time span here. It struck me when I realized that there were favorite books I’d read that I simply might never have time to reread. Their memory became all the more precious, and intangible.

Here, I’ve pulled Reading & Writing by VS Naipaul from the shelf:

My father was a self-educated man who had made himself a journalist. He read in his own way. At this time he was in his early thirties, and still learning. He read many books at once, finishing none, looking not for the story or argument in any book but for the special qualities or character of the writer. That was where he found his pleasure, and he could savor writers only in little bursts.

And this…

In my fantasy of being a writer there had been no idea how I might actually go about writing a book. I suppose —I couldn’t be sure—that there was a vague notion in the fantasy that once I had done the first the others would follow.

I found it wasn’t like that. The material didn’t permit it. In those early days every new book meant facing the old blankness again and going back to the beginning. The later books came like the first, driven only by the wish to do a book, with an intuitive or innocent or desperate grasping at ideas and material without fully understanding where they might lead. Knowledge came with writing.

An echo of Joan Didion: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

Naipaul also writes of the accidental bridge he crossed between writing fiction and nonfiction. How, through the process of researching historical archives and seeking out some sort of narrative for the unwritten histories of his Caribbean islands, he learned something else about his own writing. He came to define fiction as the “exploration of one’s immediate circumstances.” But ah, what riches emerge from the details that come from research. For him, it was digging into plantation records. For me, it comes with deciphering scientific papers and esoteric writings on birds or places. “Fiction,” Naipaul writes, “by itself would not have taken me to this larger comprehension.”

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you can chaat me up anytime, baby

It can be the tiniest of things that one loves about a place far from home. These aren’t my finely manicured nails (obviously), but here’s a decent photo of the chaat called golgappa (pani puri) that I had at a friend’ parents’ house. The little puris were crisp, containing the pani liquid of mango and tamarind we poured on top of the potato and chick pea filling. One bite, maybe two, some dribbling down the wrists, every taste on the tongue fired off.

Here’s a recipe that looks like it might could work, but i fear this just wouldn’t taste the same in Cape Cod.

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deportation

I arrive in Amsterdam as the sun breaks over the horizon, and the airport is familiar. I was just here. I came through on my way to…where? Abu Dhabi? Nairobi? The travel blurs, and I forget to keep seeing, too comfortable in the movement. The woman’s cries as soon as I settle on flight KLM flight 871 to Delhi awaken me. She is keening, repeating a phrase over and over in a language I don’t recognize. Louder, repetitive, insistent, urgent. I’m hurting or Let me go or Leave me alone. All heads turn towards her voice, rising somewhere from the last center rows of the plane as passengers place their bags overhead, unfurl cheap fleece blankets. But there is no woman—or is it a child?—to be seen. Just five large men, one in an orange vest, another with a shiny metal badge affixed to his hip, one with a shaved head, all staring inward to where this invisible but beckoning creature must be. They don’t speak to her, or gesture as though to restrain her or help her. They just watch, silent, patient. All the rest of the passengers look at each other for some guidance. Is she hurt? Why aren’t they helping? What is going on? Is it a child? The flight attendant near us explains. They are being deported, sent back. They did not have the right papers. Everyone wants to come for a better life, for their children, for their families, but these are the rules. It continues, the ceaseless sound from the back of the plane, the same phrase, over and over, loud, crucial, occasionally joined by a man’s voice—or is it a boy? I can’t see him either. My response is visceral, as though she is a babe crying for nourishment and I am a mother with full breasts. But there is nothing to do, and I turn my eyes back to my book, though I read nothing. Ignoring the commotion and straining my neck to witness it both feel a violation of some sort. One of the large men says They’ll quiet down once we get going, and he is right. When I walk to the back of the airplane later, she is slumped down with her head on the drop-down table, her black hijab a shroud over her head. The man, in his thirties, has headphones on, his eyes sealed shut. And there, on the other side of the aisle, two small children framed in by two of the agents. What is their story?  Were they driven more by a desire to get to the Netherlands or away from India? What awaits them back in South Asia? What might they have been forced to leave behind and where? Soon we are high in the sky. Ice crystals cross-hatch the plastic windows, clouds and blue beyond. Passengers have fallen asleep. I think of all the stories strapped into this one plane, hurtling around the globe. That the metals rivets can contain them is as much a miracle as the fact that we can travel 10,000 meters above the surface of the earth, and slumber so peacefully.

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thirteen miles

It took two hours and thirteen minutes to travel the 13 miles from the Barnstable bus stand to Sagamore Bridge, the definitive point between “on Cape” and “off.”  I took a front seat, looking over the bus driver’s shoulder at the road ahead, as we pulled onto Route 6, flying for those first few miles. Then, a long line of brake lights lit up like a Christmas strand. The Sagamore Bridge, where peregrine falcons considered nesting amidst its metalwork last year, is under construction. The pair was spotted only once this year before they fled, surely, from the noise and construction, the men hoisted into the heavens by cranes and lifts, bringing blowtorches and making human thunder. Bridges have always fascinated me, the engineering feat of building such structures that can stand for decades of dedicated use, letting us leap over water, canyons and gullies.

I’ve been equally fascinated by the human ability to plan things either poorly or well. The plan to not start construction on the bridge until early spring and finish by Memorial Day, including working during the peak On-Off Cape traffic times, falls distinctly in the latter category. Maybe they’re on schedule, but summer—like the herring and the ticks and the flower buds—came early to the Cape this year, along with the traffic. They surely waited to avoid bad winter weather, but there was none. The season went by without a single big dose of winter-like weather, not one isolating snowstorm to dig out of, or anything else that would have indicated we’re up at 41 degrees north latitude. The barren trees and an occasional biting wind had to suffice.

Now, the leaves have leafed out, a feast for the rapacious, invasive winter moths that munch upon them in this new environment where the cute little buggers lack natural predators. But you can’t spot the damage as we zoom down the highway, or even as we, all too soon, slow to a stop in the snarl, stuck between SUVs and kayak-topped Subarus and bike-besotted sedans. There was fleeting news recently of renewing rail service to the Cape. An intriguing concept, but not a new one. 140 years ago, the Old Colony Railroad traveled from Boston all the way to Provincetown. The reports on the radio said the service would have paid for itself immediately, but nevertheless was rejected by the authority in charge. It’s a time of austerity, was the thinking, and it would seem extravagant to extend service. Brilliant. And so we sit, among all those who have few other options.

The bus driver does his best. He tells us riddles and radios back and forth with other drivers, sharing information, and trying alternate routes, each one leading to a clogged artery, traffic always moving, but by the inch. An hour into our journey, not ten miles from home, I take a nap. I awake refreshed many minutes later, three-quarters of a mile down the road.

The weather is luscious. The sun shines from a brilliant blue sky, with white clouds so high up they seem a dream, but our air quality is abysmal according to the American Lung Association’s State of the Air Report 2012. The report gave picturesque Martha’s Vineyard an F. Barnstable got a D. This traffic can’t help the ozone, but mostly the blame is cast on coal-fired power plants in Ohio, the ones that killed nearby Hathaway’s Pond two generations ago when the water became transparent—lifeless from acidity. I kayaked Hathaway’s last month, and happily saw fish dodging about in the murky shadows below and a pair of red tails soaring overhead in courtship. As we limp down Route 6, the mega wind turbine next to the highway is at a standstill, and most of the Cape seems pitched against the idea of Cape Wind, which could produce 420 MW of power, providing three-quarters of the Cape’s electricity needs. Trains. Wind turbines. It sometimes seems like some of these issues around transportation and energy were better sorted out 150 years ago.

Finally, we approach the Sagamore Bridge, like a Holy Grail of escape, and I can see the officers in orange vests standing as useless sentinels, but there is another bit of action. Standing by the side of the highway, a dozen protestors are gathered with their signs calling for the closing of the Pilgrim nuclear power plant, 15 miles up the road. The only nuclear power plant in Massachusetts, its license is set to expire this year but will likely be renewed. Even if closed, there’s no plan for the spent fuel rods that remain onsite, waiting expectantly for a safe place to go or means of disposing them. The Cape Cod Times reported that all the fuel ever used at the plant is contained in more than 3,000 12-foot-tall rods. They are stored in a small blue pool of water that was designed to hold 880 spent fuel rods when Pilgrim first came online 40 years ago.

Should anything ever go amiss, the Cape is downwind and this bridge we’re attempting to cross along with one other that’s just as small are the only means off Cape, unless one takes to the water.

Protestors hold a banner, “Pilgrim-Fukushima: Same Design, Same Danger.” (The woman across the aisle from me asks, “What’s Fukushima?”)

Two men are dressed in radioactive suits. One holds a sign:

“How’s that evacuation route working for you?”

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