This month’s Birding Community E-Bulletin features last month’s Oklahoma South Polar Skua!
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):
Our regular rarity focus each month looks at a rare bird that was seen and appreciated by a number of observers over multiple days somewhere in North America. As such, these rarities do not usually include seabirds that are viewed from a pelagic birding boat, if only because these birds are virtually impossible to “revisit” by subsequent visitors. Alas, we have had to eliminate from consideration some spectacular rarities over the years; birds that otherwise and justifiably might have been considered as the showcase rarity of the month.
This month, however, we are truly able to point to a real rarity that was both a rare seabird and was able to be observed over multiple days. The amazing thing is that it appeared in Oklahoma!
On 6 August, Tony Solorio and his dad, Jim, observed and photographed a bird that proved to be a South Polar Skua at Lake Overholser in Oklahoma City. The skua was initially thought to be Pomarine Jaeger, but was ultimately determined to be something much more unusual.
South Polar Skuas are uncommon, but fairly regular, visitors to offshore waters along the Pacific and Atlantic coast, but are rarely seen close to shore. These Antarctic breeders “winter” off our coasts, during our summer season! The species is most often found off our coasts between May and early November, most commonly in spring and fall off the West Coast, and from spring to mid-summer off the East Coast. It’s always a good day when a pelagic birding trip scores a South Polar Skua. Finding one in Oklahoma, however, is truly astounding.
This doesn’t mean that it hasn’t happened before however. South Polar Skuas have occasionally been associated with hurricanes (e.g., Diana in ’84 in interior North Carolina, and Katrina in ’05 in Tennessee), and others have been more enigmatic, appearing in such interior localities as South Dakota, North Dakota, and, even Nevada.
The Lake Oversholser bird tended to remain in the middle of the lake, sometimes feasting on egrets and herons that it would knock out of the air, drown, and then consume! Out-of-state birders visiting Lake Overholser came from as far away as Kansas, Missouri, Texas, and Arkansas.
To see some of the original photos from 6 August taken by Tony Solario, and some additional shots taken two days later when the skua was observed attacking a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, see:
For additional photos taken by Joe Grzybowksi, who wrote “It was apparently knocking down Cattle Egrets over the water, then preying on them when down in the water; it was on one closer to shore when I took these photos,” see:
The South Polar Skua was last seen on 10 August, when it was observed just before noon rising up high into a thermal and then disappearing beyond the north end of the lake.
IBA NEWS: SAVING SOME IBAs
Of course, all the Important Bird Areas (IBAs) in the U.S. have conservation value. That’s why they are IBAs! But the National Audubon Society, national coordinator of the IBA Program in the U.S., is drawing attention to a number of IBAs that are in need of increased attention, support, and national level resources in order to advance efforts to protect crucial birds and their habitats.
Recently, NAS kicked off the “Saving Important Bird Areas Initiative” to help identify and support some of these projects. Following a thoughtful review process, 23 projects across the U.S. along with similar projects in five other countries in the hemisphere were identified and selected. IBAs in 18 states were identified as target sites. These actually encompass 81 IBAs. The sites that were selected are significant because they support 42 globally threatened bird species, and they cover more than 23 million acres.
For more details and a map, 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:
ACCESS MATTERS: MOVEMENT ON THE PATON BIRDER HAVEN
A little over a year ago, we reported on the importance of birder access at a popular Southeast Arizona “hotspot” – the Paton’s Birder haven and the unknown fate of this much-loved property:
This site, located in Patagonia, Arizona, was a lifelong project of the late Wally and Marion Paton, who for more than 35 years had built their property into a premier Arizona birding site. They especially opened their home to tens of thousands of local, American, and international birders so they could appreciate Arizona’s outstanding hummingbird diversity.
We are happy to report that some significant actions are in motion to keep the property open and welcoming to visiting birders.
The Tucson Audubon Society, Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, and the American Bird Conservancy have been working with the Paton family heirs to acquire this wonderful property and maintain it as a hummingbird sanctuary. With $300,000 needed to buy the Paton property, almost $225,000 has already been raised by contributors. The remainder is due by 15 October. Once acquired, the Tucson Audubon Society will assume ownership and management responsibilities.
Beyond maintaining the fabulous hummingbird-feeding station, the management goals include developing an information center and small shop within the house, and enhancing some of the grounds with productive native vegetation.
Here is some interesting background provided by Victor Emanuel:
You can find important details from the American Bird Conservancy here, including a way to contribute to the access and acquisition effort:
THE NEXT BIRDING DIVERSITY MEETING
Another regional “Focus on Diversity” meeting is planned for 4-6 November in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. The purpose of the event is to discuss and launch effective outreach methods for diverse audiences using a birding message, general nature-study opportunities, and a conservation ethic.
The assumption is that getting diverse audiences interested in birding is valuable. Not only should this process benefit newer birders, it should also be helpful to the general birding community and the broader environment as a whole.
This meeting aims to help “change the face of American birding.” The event is being held in McAllen, Texas. You can find details here:
The meeting is being strategically scheduled right before the 20th annual Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival:
DECISION ON TENNESSEE CRANES
Last month we revisited the ongoing discussion over whether to establish a hunting season for Sandhill Cranes in Tennessee:
After a scheduled two-year delay on the decision for the hunt, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s wildlife committee and the Tennessee Wildlife Commission both voted unanimously in late August to proceed with the hunt in the SE corner of the state starting this winter. This decision followed a public opinion process where the commission received 1,073 responses from the public about the crane hunt, and where 888 opposed it.
Even former President Jimmy Carter weighed in on the issue, expressing his concerns in a letter to the state agency. Among other things, he wrote: “I understand that your commission is contemplating opening hunting for Sandhill Cranes in Tennessee, and it is obvious that this will make it highly likely that whooping cranes might also be killed.”
Tennessee will now join Kentucky as the only two states east of the Mississippi that have crane hunts. Tennessee wildlife officials said they approved the hunt in part because federal officials determined that the Eastern crane population was big enough to sustain such activity. Sandhill Cranes are known by some hunters as “flying rib-eye in the sky.”
The commission did make some concessions to those objecting to the hunt. It reduced the proposed number of permits from 775 to 400. (Each permit is good for three birds.) The hunting period was also shortened from sunrise to 3 p.m., so hunters will be better able to distinguish Sandhill Cranes from the experimental population of Whooping Cranes that passes through the area. Normal waterfowl hunting days run from 30 minutes before sunrise to sunset. Hunters will also be required to take an identification test to ensure that they can distinguish crane species in different ages and plumages. The length of the hunt was reduced from the proposed two months to one month, assuring that the crane hunting season will stop 17 days before the highly popular Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival, based at the state’s Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in January.
For a summary of the situation, see this story from the CHATTANOOGA TIMES FREE PRESS:
TIP OF THE MONTH: RETURNING RARITIES
Remember that Tufted Duck that showed up last year on the reservoir near where you live? How about the Bar-tailed Godwit or Curlew Sandpiper that showed up in the state next door? And those two Lesser Black-backed Gulls that made a full-season appearance at the nearby sewage treatment plant? If you live in the East, remember that Rufous Hummingbird at the backyard feeder in your county? If you live in the western U.S. do you recall that Brown Thrasher that wintered at an accessible feeder in the northern part of your state?
It’s good to remember these regional rarities, because sometimes they are on a migration pattern – however irregular – that could bring them close to you again, perhaps to the very same lake, sewage treatment plant, or backyard.
Some birds will re-occur, again and again, to be found in successive years at the same season and same location where they previously occurred. They are very likely the same individuals.
This behavior is particularly true among as waterfowl, gulls, shorebirds, and even hummingbirds.
Our tip: make a mental note to re-check localities where a rarity previously occurred at the same season in successive years. You never know!
SOLAR PANELS: SOME BIRD THREATS
The drive to maintain eco-friendly energy, an effort to replace coal-burning power plants with more sustainable energy sources is both compelling and complicated.
Developing a clean-energy package, one that addresses climate change, environmental protection, household and industry energy conservation, and bird safety, is not simple.
Among other things, the wind-power debate rages on in the birding and bird conservation communities, with turbine siting being the crucial variable. It’s location, location, location…
And when we see large-scale solar projects promoted, whether suggested at such varied places as large buildings, airports, or desert areas, the issue of environmental impact inevitably arises. But solar projects spread out over hundreds of acres can appear very attractive.
Recently, however, certain solar projects have had some unfortunate avian consequences. For example, in Southern California the Desert Sunlight solar project has been associated with a spate of bird deaths that continue to be troublesome. About 70 birds have been found dead at the site since it opened in August 2011, nearly a third of them waterbirds. This is curious, since the site is in the midst of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s California Desert District.
Last year, the National Parks Conservation Association issued a report identifying three desert solar power projects sited close to National Parks in the California desert as projects that they claim should not have been approved. This included the Desert Sunlight project. But the desert species or subspecies of concern included the desert bighorn, burro mule deer, Palm Springs round-tail ground squirrel and the federally threatened desert tortoise. Nobody raised the possibilities of impacting such birds as Surf Scoter, Red-breasted Merganser, Western Grebe, Eared Grebe, Brown Pelican, or “Yuma” Clapper Rail.
Perhaps these birds saw the panels and confused them for water. This sometimes happens under certain light, rain, and reflection conditions at parking lots and roadways. Perhaps this has to do with phases of the moon reflecting on the panels, or it has to do with individual birds that are somehow ill to begin with.
The solar company, as well as U.S. Fish and Wildlife and other state and federal agencies are looking into the variables that could have implications for other utility-scale solar projects. Enhanced monitoring is required before any assessment on what would be appropriate and effective mitigation. Clearly, the involved parties cannot simply pick what some might think might work without first testing their efficacy.
While it is important to realize that solar projects can be done in a responsible way, it is crucial to know that transitioning from fossil fuels to more sustainable energy sources will involve more information on the variables associated with appropriate installation.
When it comes to long-term and bird-friendly solutions, it’s also important to remember this: It’s not easy being green.
GAUNTLET SHORTENS FOR BARBADOS SHOREBIRDS
Migrating shorebirds in Barbados have for many years had a tough time. In 2007 and 2009 we covered the practice of “swamp shooting” on Barbados, an activity that has persisted there for generations. See here:
“Swamp shooting” is not like waterfowling in the U.S. or Canada today; it’s more like a throwback to the market gunning days that was so prevalent in the latter part of the 19th century in the U.S. On Barbados, as many as 40,000 migrating shorebirds are annually shot on artificial lakes and salt lagoons. Species involved include Lesser Yellowlegs, Greater Yellowlegs, Whimbrels, Stilt Sandpipers, Pectoral Sandpipers, American Golden-Plovers, and lesser numbers of other shorebird species that are killed on an annual basis.
Starting in 2012, however, the local Barbados Wildfowlers Association instituted a series of resolutions to regulate the hunt. Although not binding on all shooting swamp members, they include the following:
Limiting gross annual harvest on the island to 22,500 birds;
Allowing no more than 2,500 birds shot per swamp each year;
Shooting no more than 300 birds in a given day per swamp;
Limiting the Lesser Yellowlegs harvest per swamp to 1,250 birds annually; and
Restricting the shooting of American Golden-Plovers to 100 birds in any swamp on a given day.
Extension magazines are prohibited, and the number of shooters presenting arms is limited to only three at a time.
These voluntary restrictions are on based on the activities of 10 active shooting swamps. In 2013, only eight swamps are active, with the Woodbourne Shorebird Refuge being currently managed specifically for shorebirds.
These moves come as a result of international pressures and the input from many parties. According to Lisa Sorenson, the Executive Director and Past President of the Society for the Study and Conservation of Caribbean Birds, “There is still much work to be done, but we consider the change… to be a very important and significant conservation outcome.”
The Barbados situation is far from ideal, and a range-wide approach is required to address this issue and ensure that any harvest is actually sustainable.
LEAD BULLETS AND THE U.S. MILITARY
Lead-based ammunition is responsible for the poisoning of millions of birds every year following ingestion of either old or recently spent shotgun pellets – mistaken for grit or seeds – or lead particles left in gut piles following successful hunts. Among birds impacted are waterfowl, loons, eagles, hawks, vultures/condors, and doves. (A nationwide ban on lead shot in waterfowl hunting, started in 1991, has been highly effective in reducing avian mortality due to ingestion while maintaining projectile efficacy in waterfowl hunting.)
Recent moves by the U.S. military to buy significant quantities of non-lead bullets in at least two calibers are positive signs. A move in 2010 to convert the 5.56 mm bullet to a non-lead bullet eliminated almost 2,000 tons of lead from the environment. A similar shift is now underway in the military involving a move to a non-lead version of their 7.62 mm bullet. Combined, these two efforts could result in an additional 4,000 tons of lead being eliminated from ammunition production over the next few years. Use of the military’s new 7.62 mm non-lead ammunition is expected to begin next year.
These moves should help to reduce lead contamination in the environment, although they will likely not have a great impact on the current bird-poisoning-by-ingestion situation.
The shift in use by the military in these two ammunition types should still have three potential long-term influences:
1 verifying the performance of non-lead (e.g. copper alloy) bullets by a user group – the military – whose expectations are high,
2 increasing the non-lead market in general,
3 and reducing the cost of non-lead bullets, along with the installation of new equipment and large-quantity sales.
The results can influence trends in the hunting community and increase positive attitudes toward non-lead alternatives.
For more on the subject, here is more information from the American Bird Conservancy:
and the United States Army:
BOOK NOTES: PAIR OF STOKES
The recent release of two NEW STOKES FIELD GUIDE TO BIRDS (i.e., Eastern Region and Western Region) is the result of a bifurcation of the Stokes’ comprehensive 2010 photo Field Guide to the Birds of North America.
The original single volume was packed with 3,400 stunning photographs illustrating 854 species. For a review of that parent volume, a review that appeared in our October 2010 issue, see:
Regional splitting has become an expected feature of the current field guide genre, and this recent pair – released earlier this year – does not disappoint. The parent volume was spectacular and comprehensive, and these two books continue the Stokes’ record of producing excellent books about birds. They two books are handy, well-organized, and easy to use.
We are so fortunate to be living and birding at a time when such books are so readily available and so user-friendly.
NATIONAL RICE MONTH
We end this Birding Community E-bulletin with a note on birds and a relationship to our American diet.
Rice growing in this country – covering about 2.8 million acres – is remarkably bird-compatible, along with having a positive impact on the environment. Rice fields create wetland habitat for many species of birds, including waterfowl, shorebirds, long-legged-waders, rails, raptors, and wetland-associated songbirds, as well as establishing habitat for related mammals and reptiles.
Rice areas in California, Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana, in particular, make for great bird habitat, and often great birding areas. Moreover, without rice farming, freshwater wetland landscapes in this country would be significantly reduced. This is especially true since rice farming creates excellent buffers, corridors, and connecting habitats for the more “official” wetland refuges and sanctuaries, be they Federal, State, or local.
As for our diet, the consumption of rice in the U.S. has more than doubled in the past dozen years and is currently about 25 pounds per capita. (This is still low compared to that of major rice-consuming nations which may average 200 to 300 pounds per capita!) It’s good to know that eating U.S. rice helps many species of native waterbirds. It may be especially worth remembering in September, celebrated now as “National Rice Month.”
Here are some sustainability-and-rice resources and facts from the folks who sponsor this particular “rice month” recognition, the USARice Federation:
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