Birding Community E-Bulletin – May 2015

Screen shot 2015-05-17 at 10.12.47 AMThe 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.

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 the morning of Friday, 3 April, Jeremy Ross was birding in the vicinity of Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge, in southwestern Indiana. While driving down a muddy and bumpy dirt road, he spotted a large shorebird land among other resting shorebirds and the bird just didn’t look right. “It was real pretty,” Ross commented. “But with the black and white and orange, I thought, ‘That’s just not normal. I don’t know what this is, but it isn’t normal.’ ”

He was right; it was a Black-tailed Godwit! This was verified when he took a digital photo using his cellphone through his spotting scope.

The Black-tailed Godwit is a Eurasian species, ranging from Iceland and east across Russia. It’s rare but regular in western Alaska, and with a healthy Icelandic population, has also been previously found along the Atlantic coast. In Canada, there are records for Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Quebec. (In fact, last month on 29 April, one appeared at the Royal Canadian Legion lawn along the Trans-Canada Highway in Deer Lake, Newfoundland.) Elsewhere along the Atlantic coast, there are records (including multiple years with possible reoccurring individuals) in such states as Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Delaware, and North Carolina. There are also reports from such far flung places as Ontario, Vermont, Louisiana, and Texas.

The only reason we have chosen not to highlight Black-tailed Godwit on several previous occasions is because the bird was bested by another, more interesting, rarity at the time. But not this month.

The reason?

Indiana! Who would ever guess that such a species would ever appear so far inland in the U.S.?

This once again proves that almost anything is possible while birding.

The Indiana Black-tailed Godwit was relocated later that same afternoon near the town of Oatsville. It was also observed at other locations in the general area throughout much of the weekend and into Monday, 6 April, although flooding conditions and rain made locating it difficult.

You can read about the discovery here:

And you can access a fine photo of the godwit by Tyler Funk here:
04-04-2015 Black-tailed Godwit Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge in Indiana


Last month, we reported on some Whooping Crane developments in Louisiana, including the initial nesting of a pair of four-year-old birds:

Unfortunately, after 40 days of incubation, it was determined that the pair, nesting at a private crawfish farm, had infertile eggs. This was their second year of attempted nesting. At the same time, another pair of four-year-old Whooping Cranes started a nest in the White Lake area, but a deluge of rain flooded the nest. That nest had a fertile egg, but it was no longer viable when it was retrieved.

There may be unlikely re-nestings in both cases. (It’s late in the season.) Odds are better, however, next year for these potential parents.

A status update from late last month can be found here:


A pair of Mourning Doves will appear on the 2015 Canadian Wildlife Habitat Conservation Stamp. The artwork was created by W. Allan Hancock of Salt Spring Island, British Columbia. The stamp, costing $8.50 (Canadian), became available on 11 April. These stamps are primarily bought by waterfowl hunters to validate their migratory game bird hunting permits. Since 1985, sales of this stamp have generated more than $50 million for Wildlife Habitat Canada’s conservation projects.

You can find more details and an image here:

Click to access WHC-2015-Canadian-Wildlife-Habitat-Conservation-Stamp.pdf


Over 60 percent of the global population of the Western Sandpiper use the Fraser River Estuary Important Bird Area (IBA) in British Columbia as a critical migratory stopover and refueling location.

This IBA supports global or continentally significant populations of fourteen other bird species, including American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Mallard, Brant, Snow Goose, Trumpeter Swan, Black-bellied Plover, Dunlin, Great Blue Heron, Western Grebe, Red-necked Grebe, Glaucous-winged Gull, Thayer’s Gull, and Mew Gull.

It was recently discovered that in addition to consuming intertidal invertebrates at the estuary, the Western Sandpipers also feed on a substance known as biofilm, a thin layer of sugars and microbes that grows on the surface of mudflats.

Bird Studies Canada biologists and collaborators have published the paper “Biofilm Consumption and Variable Diet Composition of Western Sandpipers during Migratory Stopover” in PLos ONE. The study revealed that biofilm was consumed throughout the entire Fraser Estuary, and that it is an essential food for Western Sandpipers, making up between a quarter and a half of their diet.

The study highlights the importance of biofilm, a vital resource for migrating shorebirds. And it also highlights the need to carefully monitor IBA habitats and the food therein. After all, what is habitat without food?

To access more details on the Fraser River Estuary IBA read:

For the article in question, visit:

For additional information about IBA programs worldwide, check the National Audubon Society’s Important Bird Area program web site at:


We wrote about the California drought and the impact on habitat and birdlife in March 2014:

Since then, if anything, the situation has gotten worse. Last year, California’s Governor Brown called for a voluntary 20 percent reduction in water use by all Californians, but the state failed to meet that goal. (A nine percent reduction was closer to what really happened.) At the start of last month, he moved toward mandatory restrictions. Under new restrictions, the State Water Resources Control Board will enforce a 25 percent water use reduction in every city.

The order, to be launched early this month, will likely impact everyone from golf-course operators and homeowners with backyard pools to restaurant managers serving water and virtually everyone with a standard lawn.

Brown said that the state will provide incentives to help replace 50 million square feet of lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping that uses less water. The state also wants to increase its use of recycled gray water for irrigation.

Many crop farms and other agricultural operations will not be affected, state officials said, because many have been hard hit already. Last year, more than 400,000 acres were not planted as a result of drought. Last year bird-friendly rice lands dropped from about 525,000 acres planted to 420,000 acres, and the same level is expected to be maintained this year, absent some serious rain. (There is concern about the viability of winter flooding of the rice lands, too, as well as a possible corresponding impact on waterbirds.)

Also in the Central Valley, the network of NWRs and state wildlife areas in the state has been particularly hard hit by the drought.

Fish are also threatened. The director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Chuck Bonham, said the agency counted the lowest-ever number of smelt last year and estimated a 95 percent mortality rate in salmon eggs and young fry, suggesting that the winter spawning stock had collapsed. Indeed, associated fish-eating birds may also go hungry.

Waterbirds – especially grebes and waterfowl – in migration and, later in the year, in wintering areas, may concentrate in places where the water remains. This increases the danger of overcrowding, which can lead to outbreaks of diseases such as avian botulism and cholera.

“Avian cholera is spread by secretions from birds,” said Holly Heyser, editor of California Waterfowl magazine. “In wetlands, the bacteria tend to concentrate on the surface, so takeoff, landing, and other disturbances can aerosolize it. When you have intense crowding, then, you have a lot more activity that aerosolizes the bacteria.”

At the same time, millions of trees in the state have died, a situation exacerbated by an infestation of bark beetles feasting on weakened pines year-round, and not just in late summer.

Clearly, there will have to be a lot of rain and snow in California before this situation can be reversed.


There seem to be sage-grouse stories that appear almost monthly in this E-bulletin, and that’s because the decisions for both Gunnison Sage-Grouse and Greater Sage-Grouse are ongoing and contentious. The future of both species is in question. So, here’s the latest report on the Greater Sage-Grouse.

Last month the USFWS determined that the sub-population of this species – what the Service calls a “Distinct Population Segment” (DPS) – in Nevada and California would not be designated as either Threatened or Endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

This Bi-State population – also called the Mono Basin Population – straddles the California-Nevada border, where biologists estimate that between 2,500 and 9,000 of these sage-grouse inhabit about 4.5 million acres of high-desert sagebrush. In October 2013, the Service had proposed listing the Bi-State population as Threatened under the ESA based on significant population declines.

The Service is now withdrawing this proposal in large part because of the success of the Bi-State Action Plan, which has been pursuing serious sage-grouse conservation since the early 2000s.

Here is a summary of the USFWS justification for that decision:

Beyond the Bi-State decision, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is concurrently conducting a separate status review for the Greater Sage-Grouse across its 11-state range. A determination on whether the species requires additional protection is due at the end of September.

Meanwhile, there were efforts on the part of some House members in Congress last month, through a rider on a massive defense spending package, to block activities aimed at conserving populations of the Greater Sage-Grouse.

On a party-line vote, the House Armed Services Committee voted to prohibit the listing of the Greater Sage-Grouse as Endangered for 10 years, and to retroactively block the Bureau of Land Management’s forthcoming land-use plan amendments to tighten sage-grouse protections across BLM lands in the West. This language was added to the National Defense Authorization Act by the committee under the premise that a sage-grouse listing would undermine national security. At the same time the Department of Defense spokesman stated that “we do not believe the listing decision – regardless of the outcome – will affect our mission activities to any great degree.”

The House Armed Services Committee advanced the overall defense spending package to the full House.

We should expect to see more of this sort of obstructionism over sage-grouse conservation in the months to come, especially as the calendar moves closer to the end of September.


A study published online in early April in the journal Environmental Research Letters, found that of 7.3 million acres nationwide plowed for crops between 2008 and 2012, 5.7 million had been grassland.

Researchers found that crop expansion “resulted in substantial transformation of the landscape, including conversion of long-term unimproved grasslands and lands that had not been previously used for agriculture… dating back to the early 1970s.” Corn was the most common crop planted directly on new land, with soybeans close behind.

The authors used much of their data from the Agriculture Department’s cropland data layer, which sources its information via satellite. They looked at all of the continental United States, revealing some interesting results. For example, two-thirds of land conversion occurred outside of the six states – North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska – where the 2014 farm bill instituted the “Sodsaver” provision (requiring farmers to preserve grasslands in order to be eligible for federal crop insurance subsidies). Real hot spots of grassland conversion included southern Iowa, northern Missouri, the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandle region, and western Kansas.

The role of the Renewable Fuel Standards [RFS] came under scrutiny. “The RFS is permitting, rather than preventing, the conversion of these natural ecosystems,” said Tyler Lark, lead author of the article (University of Wisconsin, Madison). “The current monitoring scheme for that type of conversion is left unchecked.”

Is it any wonder that grassland birds are doing so poorly in the United States? Here is evidence of a major source problem, on a grandiose landscape scale.

You can access the full article here:

Click to access document_pm_02.pdf


If the loss of grasslands in the U.S. has you wondering about the role of the Farm Bill as an effective conservation delivery mechanism, there is a recent publication that you should consider accessing. Indeed, the Farm Bill – with its alphabet soup of programs – is the most important tool enacted by Congress for conserving habitat on private lands. And the just-released “2014 Farm Bill Field Guide,” produced by the U.S. Committee of NABCI (North American Bird Conservation Initiative) can help make sense of it all.

What is currently under-appreciated is that the most recently enacted Farm Bill dedicates about $28 billion dollars until 2018 for land and habitat conservation. If you have any interest in saving birds – be they waterfowl, sage-grouse, Northern Bobwhite, prairie-chickens, shorebirds, Golden-winged Warblers, or a variety of grassland sparrows – you will want to look at this handy 58-page guide.

You can find more details and download the guide from here:


Poplar Island, located in the mid-Chesapeake, was once (c.1850) estimated to be 1,140 acres, supporting over 100 human residents and diverse wildlife. Extensive erosion and other processes reduced the island to a mere five acres by 1993.

It has since become a model of environmental restoration, where a creative solution for dredged material (e.g., leading to Baltimore harbor) is resulting in the restoration of this once vanishing island.

Starting in 1994, a team of federal and state environmental agencies, including the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Maryland Port Administration, and Maryland Environmental Service, launched plans to restore the island to its historic size. Today, Poplar Island – through the Paul S. Sarbanes Ecosystem Restoration Project – is a showcase for the beneficial use of dredged material.

Poplar Island and other islands in the Chesapeake Bay historically offered safe, relatively predator-free habitat to many of the bay’s wildlife and bird species, as well as a safe harbor for the bay’s fish and shellfish resources.

For us, the birds are highly attractive, and, depending on the season, the birding fare can include a fine selection of waterfowl, shorebirds, gulls, terns, and other species. Also, for us, the opportunity to access the island is vital.

For about a dozen years, visitation between March and October has been made available through Maryland Environmental Service. In fact, there are about eight birding trips a year to Poplar Island, or about one or two a month. These involve boat transportation to the island and a bus to circuit the island.

The Poplar Island story is not only important in terms of island restoration using dredge materials, but it is also a birding access experience worthy of emulation. It is one example of potential engagement in the future with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at other bird-attracting dredge operations (e.g., the 40+ Confined Disposal Facilities [CDFs] in the Great Lakes).

See here for Poplar Island background:
and here for some tour information:


If you’ve every agonized over the Hoary Redpoll vs. Common Redpoll identification problem, there are good reasons, and a recently-published article may help explain why.

Published last month in Molecular Ecology, is an article by Nicholas Mason and Scott Taylor showing that Hoary Redpolls and Common Redpolls have no differences across much of their genomes. The two researchers compared DNA from 77 redpolls coming from museums around the world. They found no DNA variation that distinguishes Hoary Redpolls from Common Redpolls. In fact, another redpoll species found in Europe – the Lesser Redpoll – also had similar DNA sequences.

While there is much variation among redpolls in the field – from highly streaked to frosty almost throughout – this does not necessarily mean there are different species. If redpolls had been separate species, then the samples would have mostly fit into two clusters, both by appearance and genetically.

On physical appearance, Mason commented, “We didn’t find distinct characteristics to separate the redpoll types, but rather a continuum, or a progression, of physical traits.” Many redpolls, he said, “were somewhere in the middle.”

The issue is nicely summarized by Gustave Axelson on the informative Cornell Lab of Ornithology blog


The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “Celebrate Urban Birds” is running its “Funky Nests in Funky Places” again. Participants are asked to send in photos of nests in “old boots, barbecue grills, motorcycle helmets, traffic signals, rakes, old tires, and who-knows-what.”

Entries can be submitted in categories such as “cutest,” “funniest,” “funkiest,” or “most inconvenient.” This unique educational project has many positive features, and project leader, Karen Purcell, adds, “This contest is a lot of fun but it’s also about really being aware of what’s around you and taking the time to appreciate birds and all of nature.”

The deadline for entries is June 15, and there are a number of fine contest prizes. (If you’re wondering, there are also guidelines on responsible and appropriate behavior around bird nests.)

Here is a full description and the opportunity to browse some fascinating submissions:


If you are engaged in springtime garden and home fix-up activities, it’s time to put window concerns on your checklist of things to consider.

The Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP), based in Toronto, has initiated some excellent reminders for homeowners looking for suggestions to make their windows bird safe. This particular project was premiered at The Cottage Life trade show in Toronto (27-29 March). And it was extremely well received by attendees at the show.

The brochure can be downloaded from the FLAP web-site in both English and French versions:

It’s also available here (English) directly:

Click to access FLAP_HomeOwnerBrochureE_2.pdf


Finally, we have a short Google story from Silicon Valley.

The corporate headquarters of Google, Inc., is located in Mountain View, Santa Clara County, California, near San Jose. At the headquarters – often called “Googleplex” or inexplicably called “the campus”- accommodations have been made to protect their nesting egrets. Egrets are now nesting on the property, the third consecutive year this has happened. (Last year there were 36 Great Egret nests and 41 Snowy Egret nests.) Road closure, the halt of grass-mowing, and other moves are all intended to protect the egrets. Public talks are also planned, starting this month. These moves with Google are in cooperation with bird conservationists, the city, and local citizens.

You can find out more here, from the San Jose Mercury-News:


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 Birding Community E-bulletin, 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 colleagues who might be interested in this month’s E-bulletin, you can most efficiently forward the E-bulletin to them using the “Forward email” feature on the bottom of this page. This retains the clearest text and presentation formatting.

Also, if you have any friends or co-workers who want to get onto the monthly E-bulletin mailing list, they can also simply contact either:

Wayne R. Petersen
Director, Massachusetts Important Bird Areas (IBA) Program
Mass Audubon
Paul J. Baicich
Great Birding Projects

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