THE BIRDING COMMUNITY E-BULLETIN
This Birding Community E-bulletin is being distributed to active and concerned birders, those dedicated to the joys of birding and the protection of birds and their habitats.
This issue is sponsored by the producers of superb quality birding binoculars and scopes, Carl Zeiss Sport Optics:
You can access an archive of past E-bulletins on the website of the National Wildlife Refuge Association (NWRA):
Last month there were at least three reports of Smooth-billed Anis from South Florida, mostly in the Keys. On 4 June, one was found at Long Key State Park, and two days later another was seen at Garden Key at the Dry Tortugas National Park. Finally, on 21 June one appeared at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park in Key West.
To include Smooth-billed Ani as this month’s rarity may seem surprising, since for many years the species was actually a fairly common breeder in Florida, although for quite some time now the species has been becoming increasingly rare in the state.
Smooth-billed Anis, probably from a population originating in the West Indies, began breeding in South Florida in the late 1930s and gradually spread northward to Cape Canaveral and westward to Tampa Bay. By the early 1960s the species was said to be “increasingly abundant” by many observers, and by the early 1970s, Christmas Bird Count (CBC) numbers of anis in the state reached over 1,100 birds. The Fort Lauderdale CBC alone tallied 671 anis during the 1969-1970 CBC period. But this trend has reversed itself, so that by the late 1980s CBC state totals dropped to under 150, and by the late 1990s, the annual CBC Smooth-billed Ani totals were below two dozen birds for the whole state. With the start of the current century, the species has been virtually extirpated from central Florida and the state’s west coast. For the CBC period from 2008-9 to 2011-12, no Smooth-billed Anis whatsoever have been recorded in Florida.
In the past year or so, a handful of Smooth-billed Anis have been seen in the Miami-Homestead area, the Flamingo area of the Everglades National Park, in the Keys (including a surprising group of six at the Marquesas Keys, 20 miles west of Key West), and at a few other spots in the southern part of the state.
To our knowledge, no studies have been undertaken to determine the reason for the changes in Smooth-billed Ani populations in Florida, although numerous explanations have been posited to account for the decline. Such speculations include winter cold spells, hurricanes, pesticides, invasive plants, habitat destruction, and most likely, some combination of these factors.
Rarity or not, these issues surely need addressing if this species is to continue to survive in the United States.
IBA NEWS: RED ROCKS NWR ADDITION
Red Rocks Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Montana is one of 40 Important Bird Areas (IBAs) in the state. It is a large refuge, about 83,000 acres, of which eight percent, or about 6,600 acres, have previously been secured through Migratory Bird Conservation Fund (MBCF) dollars. The MBCF is commonly understood as the account where “Duck Stamp” dollars are deposited.
Last month, an additional 6,323 acres were added to the refuge through the MBCF. These are lease acres, and their inclusion in the NWR was secured on 5 June when the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission (MBCC) met in Washington DC and approved the deal. These leased acres are primarily comprised of wetland and associated upland habitat, landscapes especially important for Lesser Scaup and Trumpeter Swan management.
We will discuss the MBCF and IBAs next month, but for a summary of IBAs in Montana, see here:
For additional information about IBA programs worldwide, including those across the U.S., check the National Audubon Society’s Important Bird Area program web site at:
FARM BILL DISAPPOINTMENT
The U.S. Senate acted responsibly when it passed a Farm Bill on 10 June, setting some of the nation’s most important agriculture, food, and related conservation priorities. The multi-year bill would cost nearly $955 billion, however. Not surprisingly, the need for bipartisan agreement produced an awkward package that included, among other things, a $3.5 billion cut in conservation programs designed to help protect farmland and freshwaters. In the process, 23 existing conservation programs were also consolidated into 13 programs. Still, the bill included a conservation compliance provision re-linking crop insurance premium support to specific conservation practices, and it also included a national “Sodsaver” program to help safeguard native prairies.
The important conservation compliance provision, something not applied to federal crop insurance since 1996, came out of a vital agreement between commodity groups and the conservation community to sustain responsible farming practices – an action that would benefit soil, water, birds, and other wildlife.
A national Sodsaver provision in the Senate bill would “conserve native prairies, one of the most imperiled ecosystems in North America,” said Bridget Collins, agriculture policy coordinator with the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.
But ten days later, in a move that shocked most observers, the U.S. House of Representatives failed to pass their own five-year, $940-billion Farm Bill. Their bill imploded on the floor in a struggle over Food Stamps, spending prospects, agribusiness subsidies, and other issues that caused conservation concerns to get trampled in the process. As it was, the House failed to consider an amendment that would have reflected the historic agreement between the conservation and agriculture communities to re-couple conservation compliance with crop insurance. And the House’s version only contained a regional Sodsaver program, one that would have applied to only the Prairie Pothole Region states of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Minnesota.
All hopes of resolving differences in conference between the Senate-passed bill and any House bill were dashed. Without a House bill, the fate of all these Farm Bill conservation components is becoming increasingly doubtful.
In the meantime, enrollment authority for the bird-friendly Conservation Reserve Program, Wetlands Reserve Program, and Grassland Reserve Program is continuing through September up to the existing caps for these programs. But the 2008 Farm Bill expires on 30 September. “If we are left to another one-year extension, it is very likely the conservation programs will continue to be stripped down,” warned Dale Hall, CEO of Ducks Unlimited.
Stranger still, if Congress can’t pass any Farm Bill at all, the country could eventually revert to archaic agricultural rules written back in 1949, when the last permanent Farm Bill was enacted, since all subsequent bills have been temporary.
ACCESS MATTERS: DoD ISSUES
There are many superb habitats for birdlife on U.S. military properties, and there are many good places for birding, too. But the access and conservation issues involved are huge, varied, and often complicated.
Some special birds and special places immediately come to mind in the lower-48 United States. For example, there are a number of military bases in the Southeast that are important for Red-cockaded Woodpecker; in Southern California, it’s the California Gnatcatcher that’s at play; and in Texas, it’s the Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo that may attract attention.
While these Department of Defense (DoD) properties are increasingly under wildlife-appropriate and bird-sensitive management, many birder access issues are not being similarly addressed. It should come as no surprise, however, that the DoD does not regard providing outdoor recreational opportunities – including birding – as “critical” to supporting its mission.
Not surprisingly birding access issues tightened considerably after 9/11, yet access to DoD properties is actually easing, even if only a bit.
Indeed, at some popular locations real accommodations have been made for birders. For example, at Fort Huachuca in Southeast Arizona, there are fine on-base locations to see Spotted Owl, Montezuma Quail, Buff-breasted and Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, Red-faced and Grace’s Warblers, Painted Redstart, and Zone-tailed Hawk, among others. But even at this U.S. Army base there are still restrictions. U.S. citizens must provide photo identification, vehicle registration and/or car rental contract, and proof of insurance. Visits by foreign nationals are further restricted. In addition, parts of the post are sometimes closed for indefinite periods, and all visitors are subject to random inspection.
Other locations, like Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge, just south of Los Angeles, have made different sorts of access arrangements. That refuge is located entirely within the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station. The refuge serves to protect Least Terns and “Light-footed” Clapper Rails, while at the same time providing quality habitat for migrant waterfowl, shorebirds, and other birds. Public access is currently limited to guided tours held about once a month.
Within reason, increased access to birding locations on DoD properties needs to be pursued on a local and regional level, but somehow negotiations require a real start. Base commanders will not open access unless they are convinced that a number of issues, including safety, neighborliness, and the core mission of the bases are measured and addressed.
PROBLEMS FOR NORTH AMERICAN ATLANTIC PUFFINS
Atlantic Puffins are in some serious trouble in U.S./Canadian waters. In the Gulf of Maine, these birds have been losing body weight and even dying of starvation, possibly as a result of shifting fish populations caused by an increase in ocean temperature. Shifting fish populations can impact the productivity of puffins and other local seabirds. In this region, the lack of herring is perceived to be the major problem species.
At most colonies, Atlantic Puffins are typically able to continue to produce chicks when there is a food shortage, but often these chicks are smaller and will weigh less, says USFWS biologist Linda Welch.
Last summer, the survival rates of fledglings on Maine’s two largest puffin colonies plunged, and currently puffins are in declining health at the largest puffin colony in the Gulf. This colony, on Machias Seal Island on the Maine-Canada border, has witnessed some drastic changes. At Machias Seal Island, the average body weight of both adult and young puffins is declining, according to Tony Diamond, a University of New Brunswick professor who studies the birds on Machias Seal Island. The amount of herring in the birds’ diet there has also been falling by about five percent a year, Diamond said.
According to Steve Kress, who has worked to restore and sustain the Atlantic Puffin population off the Maine coast over four decades, the diet issue is a very serious concern. Instead of primarily feeding their youngsters a herring diet, Atlantic Puffin parents have been attempting to feed their young butterfish, normally a more southerly fish that has become increasingly abundant in Gulf waters. Butterfish has become more accessible to seabirds because the fish have moved higher in the water column in response to temperature change. Unfortunately puffin chicks can still starve to death because the butterfish are too big and round for the youngsters to readily swallow, Kress said. Piles of uneaten butterfish have been found next to some of the dead puffin chicks.
Interestingly, Atlantic Puffins in the Gulf of Maine seem to be particularly vulnerable since they live on the southern periphery of the species’ breeding range.
“You never know what climate change will bring,” Kress says. “We don’t know how the puffin will adapt to these changes or if they’ll adapt to these conditions,” he adds.
Related problems plague other seabirds in the region, such as Arctic and Roseate Terns and Razorbills. You can read a recent USFWS review of the issue here:
TIP OF THE MONTH: PLAYBACKS REVISITED
Some birding debates seem to go on forever, such as the appropriateness of playing recorded birdsongs in the field. Indeed, some birders in the field today began the practice and the discussion when cassette tapes were a novelty and an innovation.
But today, it is even easier to access and play bird recordings in the field. Indeed, perhaps it is too easy, or simply too tempting.
The American Birding Association’s Code of Ethics recommends that birders “limit the use of recordings and other methods of attracting birds, and never use such methods in heavily birded areas, or for attracting any species that is Threatened, Endangered, or of Special Concern, or is rare in your local area.”
This may still seem vague to some folks, or leave certain circumstances unaddressed.
As Mel White recently summarized in a National Geographic blog: “Even in the field, in some situations it may be better to use recordings than not. What’s more disruptive, for instance: To play a song and quickly and briefly bring a bird into view so that a group can see it, or to have a dozen people walking around near a nesting site for 20 minutes trying to find it?”
Read his measured approach here:
If you want a standard to evaluate whether or not to use a recording in a place where it’s not outright forbidden, try this: If you have any doubt, DON’T use it!
BETTY PETERSEN AND BIRDERS’ EXCHANGE
It has often been said that a single individual can sometimes make a tremendous difference in the execution of a simple and beautiful idea. But even the most brilliant idea can wither without appropriate energy and creativity behind it.
This has certainly been true in the history of bird conservation, and if anyone ever proved the point, it was Betty Petersen, who sadly passed away on 4 June.
In this case, the simple and beautiful idea was to get tools needed for bird conservation into the hands of the people in Latin America and the Caribbean who needed them. The vehicle for this plan was Birders’ Exchange. The driving force behind the plan was Betty Petersen.
Birders’ Exchange began at the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, where Betty’s enthusiasm was brought to the task at hand. It was long understood that people in North America had a shared resource –migratory birds – with our counterparts in Latin American and the Caribbean. What was needed, however, was the equipment – binoculars, scopes, cameras, books, laptops, etc. – to help Latin American conservation workers and educators maintain and protect this resource.
But what also was needed was a spirit of thoughtfulness, effective communication, and the passion to hold it all together. Those not-so-easy-to-come-by qualities were what Betty Petersen brought to the Birders’ Exchange project when it ultimately moved to the American Birding Association.
Betty touched the work and lives of literally thousands of birders, conservationists, and researchers in 30 countries, from the Bahamas, Cuba, and Mexico in the north to Chile and Argentina in the south. Betty successfully managed to help connect them to each other. She did it through her talent, fervor, intense caring, and wholesome enjoyment of helping others. Betty Petersen was someone who made a real difference and who in many ways made the world a better place.
For more on Betty Petersen and her work, see here:
GROWING BUILDING-COLLISION STANDARDS
Bit by bit, more jurisdictions are addressing the issue of birds, lighted structures, and deadly collisions. Evidence of this trend is gathering in California and Minnesota.
Oakland, California, has adopted building requirements that are similar to those that were established in neighboring San Francisco in 2011. We described the San Francisco developments in November 2011:
The city of Oakland’s Bird Safety Measures are now part of the building permit process, and they apply to all construction projects that include glass as part of the building’s exterior and where the projects meet any one of several criteria. These criteria include the building’s proximity to a substantial water body or certain types of vegetation, or having a structure that contains an atrium that will incorporate vegetation.
In addition, a Bird Collision Reduction Plan must address a series of mandatory measures, such as avoiding the use of mirrors in landscape design and using minimum-intensity white strobe lighting with a specified flash instead of solid red or rotating lights. The requirements also describe eight different examples of glazing treatments and best management practices to discourage different types of glass and lighted structure collisions.
The state of Minnesota’s guidelines now address major areas of concern, including site selection, schematic design, planning deterrent facades for troublesome areas, and incorporating Lights Out program concepts. The “schematic design” phase of this program began on or after 1 May of this year and includes a requirement to adhere to the new guidelines, although projects that began their design phase before 1 May may continue with their existing guidelines.
These latest examples add to a growing list of participating jurisdictions, and they indicate growing awareness and growing sophistication in the arena of birds-and-building collisions.
For more details see a short summary of recent advances from the American Bird Conservancy’s bird collisions campaign:
BOOK NOTES: GREENER BIRDING
This interesting little book, GREEN BIRDING by Richard Gregson (Stackpole, 2013, 134pp), presents some intriguing questions along with some curious answers. The issues raised in this book are interesting enough to command lengthier coverage than usual in our “Book Notes” Section.
The book begins by emphasizing how birders are appreciating birds while at the same time are often engaged in actions that are producing large amounts of greenhouse gasses.
The material cited in the first dozen pages is creative. Gregson posits a situation where 20,000 dedicated birders travel only twice a month (50 miles each time) and fly once every two years for a birding trip of 2,000 miles. This means that at minimum these birders are driving a total of 24 million miles and flying 20 million miles every year. This translates to 21.6 million pounds of CO2 by driving and 5.7 million pounds of CO2 by flying. Gregson also includes figures for another million, but less dedicated group of birders, who might add another 31,250 tons of CO2 by driving 1,000 miles per year. No air travel is included for this group.
According to Gregson’s calculation the entire total amounts to approximately 40,750 tons of CO2, which is equivalent to cutting and burning about 244,500 trees per year.
This overall message ends quickly, however, without much on what to do about this reality, other than simply encouraging birders to personally and individually adopt more “green birding” techniques, which primarily fall into three main activities:
1 listing locally – mostly by walking, biking, and even travelling by canoe, skis, snowshoes, or horseback.
2 patch-working – mostly birding in a local area so you know it intimately.
3 supporting conservation and citizen science projects – eBird, CBCs, FeederWatch, local counts, and local wildlife management projects.
There is material elsewhere in the book on equipment, record-keeping, GPS use, software, and local listing. It’s all good, but not much in the way of a “green” connection. Then there is “green bird-listing” which can be fun for human-powered Big Days, Big Years, and Big Sits. For very local birding suggestions he emphasizes bird-friendly backyard gardening, along with including some helpful recommendations.
Unfortunately, Gregson misses the opportunity to promote a mitigation process for conservation while birding. His recommendations seem to be more for those who wish to sacrifice it all to be totally green.
Without such a mitigation option, most birders may opt to forego his recommendations. That’s too bad, because, in Gregson’s words, “birders are becoming uncomfortable with the way their passion often entails long journeys – journeys powered by internal combustion engines that churn out greenhouse gasses.”
If all that GREEN BIRDING presents is an all-or-nothing set of choices, many birders may simply choose to do nothing. Perhaps we don’t need personal or individual perfection, but, instead, increased group responsibility and action that will promote a greener birding.
The translocation of Nihoa Millerbirds to Laysan Island in the Pacific is shaping up to be a big success. From two clusters of birds moved 650 miles from Nihoa to Laysan in 2011 and 2012, the population has doubled from 50 to 100 birds. We initially wrote about this original U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the American Bird Conservancy project in November 2011:
Millerbirds had been absent from Laysan Island for nearly a century, when a closely related subspecies went extinct there in the early 20th century. (Laysan Rail and Laysan Honeycreeper suffered a similar fate.) Non-native rabbits were behind many of the problems associated with this island subspecies.
The re-establishment of a population of Millerbirds to Laysan Island provides a buffer against extinction resulting from storms, drought, fires, and additional invasives. Millerbirds on Laysan Island provide a back-up population for tiny Nihoa Island as well as the opportunity to re-establish a closely related subspecies to Laysan.
For more information, see here:
SAD ENDING TO A LONG JOURNEY
We started with a rarity in North America, and we finish with the ultimate end of a rarity in the UK.
The White-throated Needletail – a species of swift – had not been seen in the UK since 1991, when one appeared in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland, on 24 June. The origin of this rare vagrant was thought to possibly be Siberia, but this may never be known for sure.
Clearly, it had come a long, long way.
On Wednesday, 26 June, as about 40 birders gathered to witness this great rarity, the swift flew into the rotor blade of a wind turbine and died.
Apart from the tragic and high profile demise of this individual swift, this incident raises yet again the potential safety and efficacy of wind turbines, their appropriate location on the landscape, and the threat they may pose to birds.
You can find the story here:
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