Thanks to Wayne Petersen and Paul Baicich for another Birding Community E-Bulletin.
Highlights include a rare hummingbird, a startling decline in American Woodcock, and a “fembot” grouse. Check it out!
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It’s another month, another rarity, and another hummingbird. Last month it was Berylline Hummingbird; this month it’s Plain-capped Starthroat.
This relatively large hummer is normally found in arid habitats, foothills, and riparian areas from southern Sonora, Mexico, to northwestern Costa Rica. When it appears in the U.S., mostly at hummingbird feeders, it is chiefly at locations at elevations between 4,000 and 5,000 feet.
It has been reported in southern Arizona well over two dozen times since the first verified record in 1969. Curiously, it has now occurred in southeastern Arizona almost annually – in summer or fall – for the last half dozen years. Most records are between mid-June and early September.
This summer, a Plain-capped Starthroat was photographed at Santa Rita Lodge, at Madera Canyon in southeast Arizona, on 28 June and then officially reported on 1 July. The bird was seen at feeders on the porch as well as at feeders on the gift-shop deck. Remarkably, photographs have shown that there were sometimes two starthroats at the feeder.
As has been the case in the past several years, the Plain-capped Starthroats appearing at Santa Rita Lodge were not the only such individuals in the state. At least one other individual was found and observed regularly since mid-July along Foothills Road at the feeders just outside of Portal, Arizona. As was mentioned in the September 2012 E-bulletin, multiple observations similar to these may be indicative of a new trend for the occurrence of Plain-capped Starthroats in southeastern Arizona.
The Santa Rita hummer entertained visiting birders throughout the month.
For an early July report and multiple photographs by Richard Fray of the Santa Rita Lodge Plain-capped Starthroat, see here:
ACCESS MATTERS: THE SANTA RITA LODGE EXAMPLE
This month’s birding access issue relates to the rarity of the month – the Plain-capped Starthroat at the Santa Rita Lodge.
Santa Rita Lodge is located in the Santa Rita Mountains, at the heart of Madera Canyon in the Coronado National Forest. This rustic lodge has been a favored destination for visitors for more than 80 years. The Holt family, owners of the lodge since 2006, has recently been improving the lodge. See here for lodge details:
Madera Canyon often teems with birds, and in summer, birders can regularly find many specialty species such as hummingbirds and other birds at the lodge’s feeders. Among the common hummingbird species often seen are Broad-billed, Blue-throated, Magnificent, Black-chinned, Rufous, Anna’s, and Broad-tailed hummingbirds. Birding visitors are always on the alert for the rarer hummers, too, including White-eared, Berylline, Violet-crowned, and Lucifer Hummingbirds, as well as Plain-capped Starthroat.
In terms of access to the feeders, the lodge offers a popular consolidated viewing area for visitors and lodge guests alike. The consolidated viewing area was created after bear visitations in 2013 wrecked multiple feeding sites at individual guest cabins.
Though visitation is free, there is a donation box where birders are invited to leave a donation to help keep the feeders well stocked with food. Here, everybody wins.
“I like a big crowd,” said Steve Holt. “Besides,” he added, “birders are great people.”
Too often, experienced birders become accustomed to such welcoming attitudes at long-term and well-established localities. Such welcoming attitudes should not be taken for granted because, ultimately, welcoming access matters. Courtesy, cooperation, and a sense of appreciation can only help maintain the situation. Fortunately, such appreciative attitudes usually predominate at these sorts of locations, and these model attitudes need to continue… and also be emulated at other locations where access really matters.
In June, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service published its 2014 American Woodcock Population Status report, a report which includes data from 786 survey routes run in the northeastern U.S. and neighboring Canada. The survey results are intended to estimate the size of breeding populations of this species.
Within the range of the survey coverage, the counts are clustered into two regions, Eastern and Central. The survey for 2014 shows no significant difference from last year in the Eastern Region, but significant decline (i.e.7.3 percent) in the Central Region. Overall, there was a significant decline trend for American Woodcocks in both regions during the 2004-2014 period.
The singing-ground surveys for American Woodcocks have been conducted using the same protocols since 1968. Since 1968 no state or province has exhibited any long-term increases, and the trend since the late 1980s is particularly troublesome.
You can view the full 16-page population status report here:
LOOKING AT A SAGE-GROUSE DEADLINE
It’s going to be a very interesting year in sage-grouse land. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is facing a court-ordered September 2015 deadline to decide whether or not to list the Greater Sage-Grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The effort to conserve Greater Sage-Grouse and sagebrush habitat is a complex process involving 11 states, six federal agencies, a large number of ranchers, various energy interests, and many non-governmental organizations.
Here is some important background: In 1999, the Service received eight petitions to list Greater Sage-Grouse under the ESA. In 2005, the Service found listing was “not warranted.” In 2007, the not-warranted decision was remanded in federal court. In 2010, ESA listing was then determined to be “warranted, but precluded.” This officially meant that other species had greater priority. For practical purposes, the species was in a state of limbo, a “candidate species,” and efforts to further address the issue and conserve sage-grouse nearly ceased. Then in 2011, the U.S. District Court ordered the service to reach an ESA decision by September 2015. The court-ordered deadline has forced things along considerably.
This prolonged issue has sparked debate, controversy, fear, confusion, and anger among many Westerners. In addition, some legislators are also politicizing this issue with a flurry of accusations and attempts directed at delaying the ESA decision.
Currently, under court pressure, both the involved states and the Bureau of Land Management have to produce sage-grouse conservation plans that can credibly address species population recovery. One such resource management plan, the first of its kind, was released in late June. It involves 2.4 million acres of land out of Lander, Wyoming. The BLM Lander plan is particularly important because about 80 percent of the planning area is “core habitat” that harbors large numbers of sage-grouse. The plan is intended to conserve sage-grouse habitat while at the same time enabling economic activities like energy development.
The Lander resource management plan “appears to be a step in the right direction” said Ed Arnett, director of the Center for Responsible Energy Development at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “However, the plan is not perfect, and it does seem to have missed an opportunity to employ stronger measures for long-term protection of core habitat.” According to Arnett, the plan “still employs some practices not supported by science, for example, the use of quarter mile buffers around [courting] leks outside of core habitat.”
The plan calls for the BLM to prioritize energy-type development away from core habitat, however it does not take that habitat off the table for future development. “Protecting more core habitat would have been preferred, so we expect the BLM to indeed prioritize development away from core sage-grouse habitat as it implements the Lander plan,” said Terry Riley, director of conservation for the North American Grouse Partnership.
Some states are responding accordingly to the situation. Last month, for example, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission approved a plan to close all or parts of 32 counties to sage-grouse hunting this year and to shorten remaining hunting seasons from two months to one. The unanimous vote was in response to spring breeding lek counts that were the lowest since 1980. The state’s current management plan calls for closures if the number of male sage- grouse drops below 45 percent from the long-term average count for three years.
The question arises, of course, are these moves too little or too late?
Indeed, it will be an interesting year.
In the meantime, to help journalists, stakeholders, and the interested public stay informed about the situation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has built a new Greater Sage-Grouse website and assigned three public affairs officers to lead the agency’s communication efforts. This new website is one way the Service hopes to better communicate the breadth of the ongoing conservation actions:
Another way to follow developments is through the Sage-Grouse Initiative (SGI), an effort we have mentioned before, that emphasizes making ranching activities more compatible with the birds:
Here’s another curious Greater Sage-Grouse development.
Most studies at a sage-grouse lek, or mating ground, concentrate on the behavior of strutting males in their elaborate courtship displays. But how about a female’s-eye view? That’s what intrigued Gail Patricelli, associate professor at the University of California, Davis.
To understand the evolution of courtship behavior of the species, and better interpret the male response to female signals, Patricelli had a “henbot” designed, a robotic hen the rolled on a track around a lek. This model later gave way to a remote-controlled “fembot,” mounted on a much more mobile, Mars-rover-like base and with the ability to move its head, for example, in a pecking fashion.
For more on the role of this research, see this article which appeared last month in The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, Colorado) on “Sex, leks, and videotape”:
or view this blog post from The Nature Conservancy:
TIP OF THE MONTH: HERE COMES THE SUN
Experienced birders know this so well, that it should practically come as second nature. Try to keep the sun at your back while in the field.
This is something usually done without much thought because you may have done it so many times in the past. A male Indigo Bunting at the top of a bush in mid-afternoon can look all black if you are approaching from the East; so can a Gray Catbird from that angle. The idea is to position yourself in order to get the sun behind you. Try to get yourself in place where the colors you see are looking for are actually visible.
But what is sometimes forgotten is that this approach may require some planning before your birding trip. Think about approaching a preferred bird habitat with the direction of the sun in mind. Starting a birding day on a boardwalk? How about a drive on an auto-tour route at a National Wildlife Refuge in the morning? If you have the option or the choice, try to keep the sun at your back under those circumstances. The same thing goes with bright light off the surface of a marsh, impoundment, or estuary. Always try to approach birds or birding venues from the east in the a.m., the west in the p.m. It will make visibility and bird identification just so much easier.
BIRDS AND DINOSAURS: FEATHER CONSIDERATIONS
A new dinosaur species discovered in Russia and described in Science last month has raised the possibility that feathers may have been far more widespread in dinosaurs than previously thought. This newly-found five-foot-long dinosaur belonged to a group of herbivorous, beaked dinosaurs known as Ornithischia, or “bird-hipped” dinosaurs.
All previously discovered feathered dinosaurs have been theropods. “For the first time, we have found a dinosaur [with featherlike structures] outside of the theropod lineage,” said the article’s lead author, Pascal Godefroit, a paleontologist from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences.
Theropods and ornithischians split from one another about 220 million years ago, he said. “This means that feathers probably existed in the common ancestors of both lineages. This suggests that all the descendants of this common ancestor potentially could have feathers as well.”
Featherlike structures may have coexisted along with scales and could have potentially been widespread among dinosaurs. Indeed, if other dinosaurs were covered with feathers, then the traditional view of these creatures, often depicted in museum models with scaly and leathery skin, could be in need of some drastic revision.
To read an abstract of this important article, see:
IBA NEWS: PANAMA BAY STRUGGLE CONTINUES
Regular readers of this E-bulletin are aware of the importance of the Bay of Panama to shorebirds.
The Upper Bay of Panama, an Important Bird Area (IBA) and a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN) Site of Hemispheric Importance, supports more than 1.3 million shorebirds annually, including very large concentrations of Western Sandpipers. Since 2003, the site has also been designated as a Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention.
We last covered some of the developments in this area in February including an update on the reinstatement of the bay’s protection after it was suspended for more than a year while contending sides debated development vs. conservation issues:
In mid-May, Panama’s President, Ricardo Martinelli, called for extraordinary sessions of the National Assembly to pass 23 new laws during his last month in office. These included a law that would establish the Panama Bay wetlands as a protected area. Once the map coordinates of the proposal were plotted, it was clear that approximately 750 hectares of the bay’s wetlands would be excluded from protection. This section, located just south of the international airport, is dominated by mangroves and is the section most desired for development around the bay.
The Panama Audubon Society (PAS) together with legal support and fellow environmental advocates went on a national TV and radio campaign to raise public awareness concerning the impending habitat loss. More than 40 local groups issued a joint press release against the proposed law. Demonstrations were held. Attorney Felix Wing submitted a “Constitutional request for an injunction” to the Supreme Court to stop the National Assembly from considering the proposed law.
The Supreme Court, aware of the importance of the site thanks to extensive media outreach for the previous two years, acted quickly and granted an injunction. This marked the first time that consideration of a law proposed by the Executive branch had been stopped in this way.
The injunction was submitted on the grounds that altering the boundaries of the existing protected area put the country in “grave and imminent risk” of violating its legal commitments to the Ramsar Convention. Despite this injunction, the cycle began again: the National Assembly attempted to proceed with the revised boundary law, Mr. Wing submitted a second injunction request to halt the actions, and the Supreme Court ordered an injunction.
In the process, the Supreme Court sent a clear message that international commitments made to conserve and protect the Bay of Panama wetlands are to be upheld by everyone, including legislators.
There is additional hope. A new government was elected in the interim, and it will be in power for the next five years. The new president, Juan Carlos Varela, has appointed a new head of the National Environmental Authority (ANAM), Mirei Endara, a woman who has supported conservation measures for the Bay of Panama in the past. She has already announced that protecting the bay is an important priority, and she would work to right previous wrongs.
While the Panama Audubon Society and its many allies are committed to saving the Bay of Panama and strengthening the laws concerning the bay, the conservation partners are aware that the issues have yet to be fully resolved. “This will be a long-term battle, and luckily we know we are not alone. There are very good people looking after us, supporting us, and wanting to help,” said Rosabel Miro, Executive Director of Panama Audubon Society.
For additional information about worldwide IBA programs, including those in the U.S., check the National Audubon Society’s Important Bird Area program web site at:
ROOSTING CHIMNEY SWIFTS IN THE MARITIMES
We’ve reported in the past on Chimney Swift monitoring efforts, including activities in the Canadian Maritimes that were launched in the summer of 2011:
Maritimes SwiftWatch, a citizen-scientist monitoring and conservation program, brings together volunteers and community groups as stewards for Chimney Swifts. SwiftWatch participants in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia count Chimney Swifts at roost sites on four scheduled dates in spring and opportunistically through the summer months, identify nest and roost sites throughout those seasons.
The project has discovered that roughly 40 percent of the estimated Canadian Maritime Chimney Swift population roosts at just three schools: Middleton Regional High School in Middleton, Nova Scotia; Temperance Street School in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia; and Tobique Valley Middle High School in Plaster Rock, New Brunswick.
This spring, Bird Studies Canada unveiled a “Meet the Chimney Swift” interpretive panel and installed outside the Middleton Regional High School. The school’s chimney is one of the Maritimes’ most important roost sites, regularly hosting more than 250 swifts. The new sign combines creative student artwork with conservation messaging and stewardship suggestions for this the species, considered threatened in Canada and listed as Endangered by the provinces of Ontario and Nova Scotia.
Find more on SwiftWatch here:
80 YEARS AGO: THE FIRST DUCK STAMPS SOLD
The “first day of sale” for the very first “Duck Stamp” was 22 August 1934. The original design was created by artist and conservationist Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling. In its first year, 635,000 stamps were sold at $1 apiece, with the revenue generated from the stamp directed to wetland conservation. In the last 80 years, approximately $900 million have been collected through the sale of this stamp, and over 5.5 million acres of wetland, grassland, riparian, and bottomland habitats in the National Wildlife Refuge System secured.
For more on the 80th anniversary, see here:
100 YEARS AGO: MARTHA
It’s extraordinarily rare to know when the last of a species takes its last breath and becomes irrevocably extinct. In the case of Passenger Pigeon we know when that happened with a high degree of certainty. On 1 September 1914 at 1pm, Martha, the last of her species, died at the Cincinnati Zoo.
At one time, the Passenger Pigeon was the most abundant bird in North America, perhaps even in the world, with a population numbering an estimated three to five billion birds. They were once so common that flocks could literally darken the skies for hours or days at a time. Yet the species was driven to the very edge of extinction in just the last four or five decades of the 19th century. It was an extinction caused by unregulated and unrelenting market hunting and “sport shooting,” exacerbated by the spreading technologies of telegraph and modern railroads that facilitated these horrific activities.
While the loss of the Passenger Pigeon became emblematic for the 20th century American conservation movement, it continues to be a reminder of the need for humans to be responsible stewards of birds, wildlife, and nature. For that alone, Martha’s departure, 100 years ago next month, should be remembered.
Also, at the end of last month, 127 organizations got together and sent a letter to President Barack Obama, asking him to issue a presidential proclamation commemorating the centenary of the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon.
To obtain more information about the Passenger Pigeon, the centenary, and the current lessons its departure holds, see:
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