The Little Egret is an Eastern Hemisphere species, ranging from western Europe, Africa, and southern Asia and Japan south to Australia. This species was first seen in North America in Newfoundland in the spring of 1954, but it was the 1980s before a few others were reported in Atlantic Canada, and 1989 and the 1990s before multiple birds were reported in New England. Most have appeared in spring and summer, including birds south of New England (e.g., Delaware and Virginia), and about a dozen records possibly involve returning individuals for multiple years. (The species has also occurred on some Caribbean islands, most notably Barbados, where it has actually established a breeding toehold. There was also a May 2000 record for the western Aleutian Islands.)
Since the mid-1990s, the Little Egrets have become almost annual in the Northeast – in Atlantic Canada and New England.
But from where do these birds originate? Are they from northwestern Europe (where their numbers have recently increased)? Might some have overshot sub-Saharan wintering areas to make initial landfall in northeastern South America and the Caribbean? (Records for Suriname, Trinidad, Martinique, Barbados, and Antigua support this hypothesis.) Are summer observations in the Northeast a result of northward post-breeding dispersal of egrets from the Caribbean? Was the single Aleutian record an overshoot vagrant from Japan?
Unfortunately, these questions remain unanswered. And the fact that Little Egrets are very similar to Snowy Egrets in appearance makes the collection of reliable field records especially troublesome.
In any case, the first Little Egret to ever appear in Maine was in June-July 2011 in Scarborough Marsh. It may be the same bird that also appeared there in August of 2012.
So, when a Little Egret appeared in nearby Falmouth, Maine, on 8 June of this year, there was considerable interest. The bird, found by Doug Hitchcox, was photographed at the south end of the West Meadow at Gilsland Farm, and later in a marsh area off Presumpscot Street. After seemingly having disappeared for a while, it reliably showed up again on 18 June, often accompanied by two Snowy Egrets. Then, from late June through the end of July, it remained in the area, often frequenting Tidewater Gardens Farm and sometimes behind the local Walmart.
It often took persistence to find the bird, but many birders from New England and beyond were rewarded with views of this Little Egret last month.
The photos show how similar-looking this species is to a Snowy Egret, too. At this season, interested birders should be on a sharp lookout for more of these look-alike birds!
BOOK NOTES: CUBA OPENING
Last month’s official re-opening of mutual embassies in Havana and Washington D.C. potentially signals the start of a new post-Cold War era in U.S.-Cuba relations. Coincidentally, this diplomatic event was preceded by a few weeks with the distribution of a Field Guide to the Endemic Birds of Cuba by Nils Navarro.
With his Field Guide to the Endemic Birds of Cuba (2015, Ediciones Nuevos Mundos), Nils Navarro, Cuban artist and field biologist, has produced a small but exceedingly power-packed and attractive publication. At first, one might suppose that a 168-page book is merely a rundown of the birds unique to the island, along with a few accompanying notes, but, in fact, it is much more. Simply opening up the book will at once dispel any doubts: this little gem has about everything one could want to know about Cuban birds in a book of its size.
The book has essential introductory sections on “getting to know Cuba” and “frequently asked questions on birdwatching in Cuba.” This is all followed by individual ID accounts on Cuba’s 26 endemic species each accompanied by Navarro’s excellent artwork along with details on voice, geographic variation, status, distribution, habitat, feeding, nesting, and reference localities. There is also space allotted at the end of each species account for the user to add personal notes.
The book not only describes the 26 Cuban endemics, it also covers another 22 uniquely West Indian species that also reside in Cuba. All of these birds are illustrated with Navarro’s skillfully executed paintings. Basically, any birder traveling to Cuba needs only this book and a favorite accompanying North American field guide to have all the birds of Cuba fully illustrated and described.
Other features of the book include sections on bird habitats (with accompanying photos), individual bird photographs, conservation needs in Cuba, essential maps, and a handy checklist.
Most appropriately, the book is being made available in two versions: English and Spanish.
Perhaps best of all, this book could hardly be released at a better time in terms of U.S.-Cuban developments. Also, in the spirit of its timely release, the illustrations and photographs in the book are available, upon permission, for other non-profit conservation projects. Thus, Nils Navarro has produced a much-needed contribution, using his personal rare combination of artistic skills, sensitivity, and warmth that make him both a national treasure and a significant inter-American player as well.
GULF-COAST VOTERS WANT HABITAT RESTORATION
A poll released last month by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and The Nature Conservancy shows that Gulf Coast voters remain very concerned about the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon disaster and overwhelmingly support using the fines resulting from that disaster for Gulf restoration and conservation projects. These are funds mostly distributed through the RESTORE Act and its related Gulf Coast Restoration trust Fund.
The dramatic 2010 blow-out has had a lasting impact on coastal habitats, including the birds and fish of the region.
A bipartisan research team of liberal-leaning Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates and conservative-leaning Public Opinion Strategies partnered to complete this survey of registered voters along the Gulf Coast. The results show that voters place a lasting value on the health of the Gulf as contributing to the region’s economy and culture.
More than three in five voters (61 percent) say that the “after-effects of the BP oil spill on natural areas and wildlife along the Gulf Coast” are an “extremely” or “very serious” problem for the region. That figure is up from 57 percent in 2013 and ranks among the top concerns of the region: the economy (67 percent), education (66 percent), and crime (62 percent).
“This poll reveals continued strong concern by the people of the Gulf region for the health of the Gulf of Mexico and the strong belief by a broad cross-section of the population that funds from the recently announced settlement with BP should be invested in restoring and conserving the natural features that make the Gulf such a beautiful, biologically rich, and productive place,” said Robert Bendick, Director of The Nature Conservancy’s Gulf of Mexico Program.
Nearly seven in ten (68 percent) voters said RESTORE Act funds “should be used mainly for restoration of our beaches, wildlife habitat, coastal areas, rivers and other waters that affect the Gulf Coast.” Just 17 percent preferred that funds “be used mainly for construction of roads, convention centers, school buildings, and other projects on the Gulf Coast.” Republicans (68 percent) were even more likely than Democrats (58 percent) to prioritize restoration projects over construction.
You can read more from the Alabama Media Group website:
IBA NEWS: YUKON DELTA NWR SHOREBIRD SURVEY
The Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge in western Alaska is so large – more than 19 million acres – that it contains at least seven individual Important Bird Areas (IBAs). One can only imagine the difficulty in doing an accurate survey of shorebirds across the refuge.
This expansive NWR was also designated as a WHSRN (Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network) site of Hemispheric Importance in 2000. The refuge is celebrating its 15th anniversary in the network this year.
Based on data from aerial surveys conducted during post-breeding seasons, the Refuge has been known to host more than three million shorebirds annually. Among them are virtually all the world’s population of Black Turnstone, and more than 30 percent of the global population of Bar-tailed Godwit and more than 66 percent of the global population of Bristle-thighed Curlew. The latter two species breed on the NWR and then fly non-stop over the ocean to wintering grounds in the South Pacific; the godwit then migrates north up along the western Pacific Rim and the curlew returns across the ocean.
In October 2012, the Refuge became the first U.S. site in the East Asian – Australasian Flyway Partnership’s bird conservation network because of its importance to these “bi-hemispheric” species.
Recently, and after months of intense coordination and preparation, a team of shorebird researchers completed one of the largest shorebird breeding-ground surveys ever conducted. From 15 May to 10 June, they gathered data from more than 300 plots across the expansive Yukon Delta National NWR to more accurately delineate breeding areas and estimate population sizes for several species.
Accomplishing such a task at this unprecedented geographic scale – in less than four weeks – required intense logistical planning. Three teams of researchers were needed to move in and out of remote and roadless areas using a combination of helicopters, planes, and boats. Following the Program for Regional and International Shorebird Monitoring (PRISM) protocol, the 400m x 400m survey plots (approx. 40 acres, or 16 hectares) were randomly selected and each researcher had 1.5 hours to traverse a plot on foot, noting all signs of breeding shorebirds, before traveling to the next plot.
The basic advantage of breeding surveys, versus nesting surveys, is that shorebirds are most obvious when they are singing and displaying during courtship. Once these birds are on their nests, the tundra grows quiet as they hunker down, blending seamlessly into the tundra landscape.
“Baseline data from this survey will help us to measure not only the impacts of stressors such as climate change and energy development on Arctic breeding birds and their habitats,” explains Stephen Brown, Director of the Shorebird Recovery Program at Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences – a lead partner in this effort – “but also the difference that our conservation efforts are making over time.”
Generally, the most common species was Western Sandpiper, and the coastal zone had impressively high densities of Black Turnstones and Rock Sandpipers.
A second round of surveys is scheduled to take place at the Yukon Delta NWR in 2016.
This project’s success is due in large part to the cooperation among funders and dedicated scientists, with support from their public and private organizations, including Manomet, the USFWS, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
More details on the survey effort can be found here:
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:
WHERE DID THIS FLORIDA COLONY GO?
One of Florida’s largest wading-bird rookery on the Gulf coast has been at 150-acre Seahorse Key. Seahorse Key is part of the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge.
The Seahorse Key rookery has traditionally held between 2,000 and 15,000 pairs of nesting Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Little Blue Herons, White Ibises, Roseate Spoonbills, Brown Pelicans, Double-crested Cormorants, and lesser numbers of other birds. Notice, we write that these colonial birds “traditionally” nested on Seahorse Key, but they no longer do.
In May, nearly all the birds in this giant colony left, practically overnight, leaving empty nests in trees and shrubs and broken eggs on the ground. A small fraction of the colony relocated to Snake Key, a few miles away, and a few Ospreys remained on their nesting poles, but the multi-species colony virtually vanished.
More disturbing is the fact that Federal, State, and NGO investigators don’t know why this happened. “It’s a dead zone now,” said Vic Doig, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist.
“I’ve never seen an abandonment quite like it,” said Peter Frederick, a wildlife biologist at the University of Florida who has studied the state’s birds for nearly three decades.
“We’ve seen a lot of abandonments in the Everglades and in some seabird colonies, but there’s never been such synchronicity involving so many species at once,” Frederick said. “Nothing seems to fit together.”
“The jury’s still out,” said Julie Wraithmell, director of wildlife conservation for Audubon Florida. Mass abandonment, she said, “is always a result of some kind of tragedy. With that number of birds having invested in courting and having built nests and laid eggs, some kind of change happened.”
Possible explanations for the abandonment include: disease or contaminants, parasitic infestation of nests, roving predators, aircraft flyovers, climate change, boaters coming too close to shore, and people trespassing on the restricted island.
So far none of these seem to provide an adequate answer. Abandoned carcasses were tested for diseases or contaminants with no positive results. Abandoned nests failed to show evidence of parasites. The few raccoons trapped could not have created such wholesale abandonment, nor were there signs of Great Horned Owls on site. Night-flights over the area by surveillance planes and helicopters are considered a remote possibility. But climate-change doesn’t seem likely to have singled out this particular island rookery. There was no solid evidence of boater or human visitor interference, although there have been abandonments at similar localities due to single visits by beach-goers.
Refuge manager, Andrew Duge, surmises that a combination of some of these factors “added together,” might be to blame, but it’s unclear what that mix might be.
Whatever the explanation, if these colonial species do not return next year, it may mean that this critical island refuge nesting-area has been lost.
TIP OF THE MONTH: FAVORING FIELD GUIDES
We live in a time when field guides for birds come in a variety of sizes and shapes, in printed format or in hand-held versions.
As far as the much-valued and traditional books are concerned, the options for the field are varied, indeed. The choices are almost mind-boggling: Eastern? Western? State-based? Photo-oriented? Color-illustrations? Family groups? Today, you have your pick.
Consider, however, that there is no “one best birding field guide.” It’s simply a matter of taste and circumstances.
Your favorite printed field guide may be ideal for you, but it may not be the best for everyone!
Some bird watchers will only use photo-guides; some will avoid them. Some birders want finely detailed text; some simply look for great illustrations. Some newer birders get overwhelmed with one format and are more comfortable with another. Some birders will insist on guides with details on mega-rarities; other birders will regard such coverage as distracting or confusing. Some birders will agonize over the size of the lettering; some simply don’t care. Some birders will collect and use every specialty book on families – e.g., shorebirds, raptors, warblers – while other birders don’t want to be bothered. Some birders insist on large and detailed distribution maps; some birders will settle for small or generalized ones.
What is best for you may not be best for all. And what is best for you now, may be inadequate for you in a couple of years. Realize that one size does not fit all, and it’s probably best to let the guide fit the birder!
MORE CARBON OFFSET BIRDING
In our June issue, we mentioned the efforts to connect local birding festivals with specific conservation projects:
One such conservation option is carbon-offset birding, and this month’s Tucson Bird and Wildlife Festival has adopted another creative example, with their own Carbon Offset Bird Project (COBP).
To see how the festival organizers are handling this approach, aimed at one of their restoration mitigation sites, the Simpson Farm, and involving native planting, seeding, and invasive removal to favor the birds, see here:
Also of interest was the resolution passed at last month’s BirdsCaribbean meeting in Jamaica. There, the members voted to pursue a bird-oriented carbon-offset project for their future meetings.
MBTA SAVED FROM RECENT ASSAULT
Last month, we mentioned the effort to eviscerate the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in the U.S. House of Representatives:
Since then, efforts by Congressman Jeff Duncan (R-SC) have not been successful in terms of amendments on weakening the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) and Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
There were many letters that went to Congress over this issue, including this one sponsored by the American Bird Conservancy and signed by over 100 concerned organizations, listed on the bottom of this page:
This particular offensive may be over, but more may still emerge.
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