Thanks to Paul Baicich and Wayne Peterson for the latest Birding Community E-Bulletin:
The Birding Community E-bulletin is distributed to active and concerned birders, those dedicated to the joys of birding and the protection of birds and their habitats.
With the start of 2014, we present a new format and look to the E-bulletin. It’s still presented simply, without distracting bells-and-whistles, but with the same sort essential information we have provided for almost 120 monthly issues. (If you have any comments on our new presentation, feel free to get back to us!)
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):
On 12 December, Keith Slauson found a Little Bunting in McKinleyville, Humboldt County, California. This species breeds from northern Finland, east across northern Siberia to the Russian Far East. It winters from the Indian subcontinent through Southeast Asia.
There are about 15 records for the Little Bunting in Alaska, involving over two dozen birds (including 10 individuals in 2007). The species may ultimately prove to be nearly annual in the fall in remote NW Alaska.
The McKinleyville bird is only the 5th record for the U.S., south of Alaska, and the 4th for California since the first individual was found in San Diego in 1991. The previous four records for California involved late fall and winter birds.
The McKinleyville Little Bunting loosely associated itself with Savannah and White-crowned Sparrows on Fisher Road, near the Hammond Bridge and often within 100 yards of both sides of the road. Patient observers who arrived before 22 December got to see the bird.
You can view photos of the Little Bunting taken by Rob Fowler here:
More photos taken by Mark Rauzon of birders watching the Little Bunting on the last day it was seen, 21 December can be found at:
REMARKABLE SNOWY OWL INVASION
An invasion of Snowy Owls first began to be noticed in late November, and it has been in motion ever since. By now birders, conservationists, and the general public are practically all aware that an epic irruption of Snowy Owls is currently in progress. . The event has been most obvious in southeastern Canada, the northeastern U.S., and the Midwest. This is possibly the largest event of its kind in recent memory.
Right now, the tail end of the 2013-2014 Christmas Bird Counts is likely uncovering many of these birds, some of which have been truly remarkable in terms of the numbers present or the locations where they have been found. Some birds have been spotted as far south as the Carolinas and Missouri, and others have been even more astounding.
Here’s a report and photo of one on Bermuda:
Early on, hundreds, yes hundreds, were found on the Avalon Peninsula on one weekend in southeastern Newfoundland, south of St. John’s:
The overall phenomenon was explained and illustrated well (with a helpful map) by the eBird crew at the Cornell Lab in mid-December:
But what probably gripped national attention most vividly was the recent controversy at JFK airport in New York City. There, in early December, Snowy Owls, that were attracted to the tundra-like landscape of the airport were shot in the interests of maintaining air traffic safety.
On 10 December, the popular Today Show on NBC broadcast this story, along with thoughtful comments by John Fitzpatrick of the Cornell Lab or Ornithology and a video of the release of a Snowy Owl that had been caught by Mass Audubon’s Norman Smith at Logan International Airport in Boston and released at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. This highly effective relocation program has been in place in Boston for over 30 years. You can view this TV broadcast at:
Apparently, the complaints – in the form of letters, phone calls, and petitions – were significant enough that the Port Authority in the NYC area responded with a commitment to develop a plan to trap and relocate Snowy Owls that could potentially pose a threat to aircraft at JFK and LaGuardia airports. The Logan International Airport experience clearly represents a viable protocol:
The outcome has been encouraging, since the concern over the shooting “solution” went far beyond the birding community, into the general public.
The Snowy Owl experience at airports is quite different from bird-strike incidents involving Canada Geese, European Starlings, and gulls, most of which are flocking species that represent proven and potential hazards to aircraft and passenger safety. One only need recall the dramatic “Miracle on the Hudson” with US Airways flight 1549 in 2009 involving a flock of Canada Geese to envision the consequences.
Snowy Owls represent potentially different problems at airports, primarily because the owls typically involve solitary individuals, certainly not flocks.
The encouraging resolution of the recent Snowy Owl experience in the NYC area is a start at resolving the issue, but is by no means an end. What should be considered next is a taskforce – perhaps involving the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the current Bird Strike Committee USA – to move toward an enforceable nationwide policy. Addressing the impact of Snowy Owl occurrences at airports, and then incorporating the successful model pioneered at Logan International Airport, is long overdue.
FOCUS ON DIVERSITY: RESULTS OF NOVEMBER MEETING
The third “Focus on Diversity: Changing the Face of American Birding” meeting took place in McAllen, Texas, in November. The mission of this conference series has been “to facilitate innovative bird education and outreach efforts which will more effectively engage new, diverse, and under-represented audiences in birding/nature activities and promote broader conservation awareness and action.”
You can view a short video of this successful November event and link to a written summary report here:
IBA NEWS: PACIFIC FLYWAY MARINE IBAs
In an effort to raise awareness about the conservation of seabirds, National Audubon, the coordinator of the Important Bird Areas (IBA) program in the U.S., has released a new interactive map that allows users to explore some of the most important places for seabirds along the Pacific Coast.
The map extends from the icy Beaufort Sea along Alaska’s north coast south to the tropical seas of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. This initial mapping is important since threats to seabirds include ocean pollution, human overfishing of critical food fish, and human-caused disturbance to breeding, feeding, and resting sites.
The interactive map specifically identifies 216 new and potential marine IBAs.
Easy to use and full of photos and facts about seabirds, the map allows users to browse the newest marine IBAs to learn more about where seabirds nest and feed. For those who seek a more in-depth view, or who want information about certain species or places, the map has deeper layers with species profiles for the key bird species, the habitat descriptions, as well as detail about the specific conservation issues being faced.
Many questions faced the researchers who put this project together. . For example, how do you draw a boundary on the ocean? Since seabirds nest in dense colonies on cliffs and rocky islands, how far away from those sites should be considered important to the birds? What about places in the ocean with no landmarks but are good feeding areas for birds?
Using data from the US Geological Survey’s North Pacific Pelagic Seabird Database and the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s North Pacific Seabird Colony Database, plus a strong dose of ingenuity, researchers have started to address those questions and have made a map that is another step toward approaching seabirds within an IBA context.
See here for the interactive map:
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: CLOSED FIELDS?
Across large segments of our Great Plains there are state-based efforts to provide public access to private conservation lands – mostly on re-cropped grasslands under the Farm Bill’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). These programs go by different names in individual states and are not all run the same way. In some states, access is made available only to those people with hunting licenses (since license dollars may help to pay the landowners for opening their lands). In other states, access is open to all – hunters, birders, photographers, hikers, and others.
This was described in past issues of the E-bulletin, especially with the 2008 Farm Bill’s “Open Fields” element (officially called the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, or VPA-HIP) which was intended to help the states open up more private acres to the general public. For example, see here in May 2010:
and in September 2011:
The trend in Open Fields was to open up more lands, but that portion of the Farm Bill ran out of funds, so its resurrection is now in doubt.
We currently see the reverse happening, with CRP enrollment expiring, and lands disappearing from even hunter access, let alone access to the general public. Instead of moving toward a more general Open-Field orientation, the trend seems to be in the opposite direction.
North Dakota is an example. A decade ago, landowners there were attracted to CRP and the additional state bonus to participate in the Private Land Open to Sportsmen (PLOTS) program administered by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. These PLOTS properties have been marked across the state with iconic yellow triangle signs. At its peak in 2008-2010, PLOTS had 1.1 million acres enrolled for access. That dropped to 760,000 in 2013.
It’s often a simple financial decision for the landowner. Farm Bill CRP subsidies, even with PLOTS payment cannot compete with cash rents in today’s market, especially when considering the land-rush for corn ethanol.
The prospects are troublesome. Some observers have predicted that PLOTS across North Dakota could fall to about 200,000 acres in four years.
This can’t be good: not for hunters, not for birders, and certainly not for the habitat. After all, it is important CRP grasses and other vegetative cover habitat that is being lost, and instead of opening up to others with the help of federal Open Fields dollars, the tendency is clearly in the opposite direction.
The implications go far beyond North Dakota.
INTERIOR SEC’Y JEWELL ANNOUNCES IZEMBEK DECISION
In late December, the Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, announced a decision on the status of Izembek National Wildlife Refuge on the Alaska Peninsula. This decision concluded a four-year analysis to consider a land exchange with the State of Alaska and the construction of a road through the refuge.
The idea of a road has been discussed since at least the 1980s with the residents of the town of King Cove. The town wanted a road through the refuge to improve access to Cold Bay and its airport for personal, medical, and commercial purposes. The proposal involved the offer of a swap of about 56,000 acres for conservation in exchange for the right to build the road. The distance between King Cove and Cold Bay is approximately 35 miles, requiring about 12 miles of new one-lane gravel road.
While the offer of the land exchange would have brought substantial acreage into the National Wildlife Refuge System, the proposal was rejected. The decision concluded that the increased acreage could not compensate for the unique values of existing refuge lands, nor the anticipated effects that the proposed road would have on wildlife, habitat, subsistence resources, and wilderness values of the refuge.
Izembek NWR was established in 1960 and designated official Wilderness in 1980. The refuge serves as vital habitat for shorebirds and waterfowl – including 98 percent of the world’s population of “Pacific Black” Brant. The proposed road would have bisected the isthmus where most of the refuge’s 315,000 acres of congressionally-designated Wilderness is located.
By designating this area as Wilderness in 1980, a highly protective category for public lands, Congress recognized the importance of protecting Izembek, a place where natural processes prevail with few signs of human presence. At the core of the areas protected are internationally significant eelgrass beds in Izembek and Kinzarof Lagoons, thought to be the largest in the world, as well as adjacent wetlands and uplands of the narrow isthmus. In addition to the Brant, other birds that depend on these wetlands and eelgrass beds include Emperor Geese, Steller’s Eiders, and many other waterfowl and shorebirds.
In February, 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had issued a rejection of the proposed road and associated swap, but the ultimate decision was delayed so that the new Secretary of the Interior, Jewell, could oversee additional steps in review.
A copy of the Record of Decision is available here:
For more information about the Izembek NWR, see here:
BOOK NOTES: BREEDING BIRD ATLAS INNOVATIONS
State and Provincial breeding bird atlases (BBAs) have been evolving over many years, and the most recent Massachusetts entry, a project of Mass Audubon, certainly represents another leap in the genre.
Last month, iTunes made available the second Massachusetts BBA as an eBook. This is the very first BBA eBook. On iTunes, it sells for about $25:
For those folks who still like the “real” book option they are also offering a print-on-demand option. The publisher will be taking preorders for the book, in the $115 range, shipping included in the US. This offers a traditional treatment of the atlas, addressing distributional shifts of more than 200 species in Massachusetts, richly illustrated with John Sill’s artwork, and featuring all maps – Atlas 1, Atlas 2 and Change Maps, as well as detailed distribution tables. See here very soon for particulars:
At the same time, the Massachusetts BBA2 website has essentially all the content that is in the eBook, and that’s for free:
A succinct BBA2 summary, as well as bird conservation recommendations for the state, “State of the Birds 2013 – Massachusetts, Breeding Birds: A Closer Look” also became available last year in print, and as a pdf document:
The data used in the preparation of the BBA2 as well as State of the Birds 2011 and 2013 is available at the same website – just choose “Find A Bird,” and you can explore the data.
These products are a direct result of 150,000 hours in the field, 250,000 data records, 222 species, and five years of field work. Now more is known about Massachusetts breeding birds than ever before, and it is possible these data represent the most complete data library for any state in the US. This work makes informed decisions about bird conservation planning in the state possible. Indeed, this work is not just about breeding birds; ultimately, it is about maintaining healthy and sustainable communities.
In combination, these projects aim to educate and inform everyone with an interest in Massachusetts with even a mild interest in birds, from planners to foresters and students to conservation professionals. Everyone now has access to the BBA2 data and the reports across many platforms.
Other states and provinces in the process of developing their own BBAs should take note.
MIDWAY: THAT PLASTICS CONNECTION
Last March, we ended the E-bulletin with a report on “Wisdom,” the female Laysan Albatross on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, who is at least 62 years old, and then became a mother again:
This month we also visit Midway with a subject that has appeared previously in the E-bulletin as far back as 2004: floating plastic debris in the ocean that is unfortunately appealing to seabirds as “food.” The beautiful spectacle of roughly 450,000 pairs of nesting albatrosses on Midway is increasingly interrupted by the disturbing image albatross chicks dying of starvation and other trauma caused by their parents who inadvertently feed the chicks cigarette lighters, bottle caps, and other miscellaneous plastics.
This gripping story should reach audiences when the film, Midway, by artist and filmmaker, Chris Jordan, reaches theaters later this year.
The link that follows is a four-minute trailer – both beautiful and disturbing – from an upcoming film scheduled to premiere later this year:
and a shorter two-minute trailer:
Also, in advance of the film’s release, Rebecca R. Rubin, head of the environmental consulting firm, Marstel-Day, has interviewed Chris Jordan to learn more about what’s he’s witnessed while filming on Midway and what’s at stake. You can watch that four-minute interview here:
TIP OF THE MONTH: MAKE A NEW BIRDING RESOLUTION
It’s that time of year to make a requisite New Year’s resolution.
Perhaps you can consider a three-part bird-oriented resolution. First, take the time to enjoy birds in 2014. This intent can be narrow or broad, whether you expect to spend time in your back yard, on local or national trips, or even abroad. Relax, enjoy yourself, and relish in the wonder of birds. If anything, this is the easiest part of our suggested three-part resolution.
Second, resolve to share the wonder of birds with others. Yes, share. Take others out and help them discover the amazing world of birds that has already inspired you. Introduce birds to your neighbor, a co-worker, a local teacher, or a group of kids.
Finally, and this is very important, do something to secure the future of birds. It doesn’t have to be huge, but it should go to whatever local, regional, or international effort fits you best. You can help make a difference to protect birds, but only if you make an effort.
Enjoy, share, protect. That’s a good formula for 2014.
ARCHIVES AND MORE
You can access all the past E-bulletins on the National Wildlife Refuge Association (NWRA) website:
If you wish to distribute or reproduce all or parts of any of the monthly Birding Community E-bulletins, we simply request that you mention the source of any material used. (Include a URL for the E-bulletin archives, if possible.)
If you have any friends or co-workers who want to get onto the monthly E-bulletin mailing list, have them contact either:
Wayne R. Petersen, Director
Massachusetts Important Bird Areas (IBA) Program
Paul J. Baicich
Great Birding Projects