Monday, February 2, 2015

The Birding Community E-bulletin -- February 2015




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.
 
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):



RARITY FOCUS

Last month, we mentioned the Rustic Bunting found in San Francisco's popular Golden Gate Park on 7 December. That rarity would have normally been our profiled rarity-of-the-month, but Common Cranes in both Texas and New Mexico took the honors last month.

Well, the Rustic Bunting conveniently stayed through January, and we can now give it the full attention it justly deserves.

The species breeds from northern Scandinavia east across Eurasia to Kamchatka and northern Sakhalin. Rustic Buntings will winter mainly in eastern China, Korea, and Japan. It is a rare but almost regular vagrant to Alaska, particular in the Aleutians and Pribilofs, but it has been seen elsewhere on the West Coast in British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon, as well as about a half-dozen reports by now from California, starting in 1984.

The Golden Gate Park Rustic Bunting, associating with sparrows and juncos, was originally reported by Alan Hopkins. The bird continued regularly near the southeast intersection of Nancy Pelosi Drive and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and by the Big Rec Ball Fields area, across the street from the California Academy of Sciences. It was often found on brushpiles, grass, and perched in nearby trees.

One of the exciting things about this Rustic Bunting has been its accessibility at a well-known and popular location. People from near and far - whether on a business trip to San Francisco, on a family vacation, traveling and birding from across California or across the country, or just curious local folks from the Bay area starting a birding interest - have enjoyed this rare bird.

Here are some of Mark Rauzon's images from mid-December:


YET ANOTHER MEXICAN-RARITY CONUNDRUM

On Sunday afternoon, 11 January, Rich Kostecke found and photographed a Striped Sparrow, a Mexican species, in eastern Williamson County, Texas. This is northeast of Austin.

There is no doubt about the identification of the bird, but its origins are far more difficult to determine. The species, native to Mexico, is known to be very sedentary. It's a species that is endemic to the northwest and central Mexican highlands. The closest this range gets to Williamson County, Texas, is the boundary between the Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua, about 700 rugged miles away.

The Striped Sparrow associated with a large number of other sparrows - Lincoln's, Harris's, White-crowned, etc. - as well as Northern Cardinals, and Red-winged Blackbirds along a 200-yard stretch of a rural roadside. Visiting birders - many traveling from afar - would regularly stand on one side of the road and look across the way to review the selection of sparrows and other birds on the opposite side of the road. (Some birders even arrived to the site early in morning darkness, ready with birdseed and eager to prime the area along the roadside. Yes, it worked.) The Striped Sparrow remained throughout the month, observed and well-photographed by birders almost daily.

See here for a couple of Kostecke's original photos:


FOREST PLAN TO HELP GOLDEN-WINGED WARBLER

In mid-January, a large forest management and habitat conservation effort was announced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that will target improvements on approximately 64,000 acres of key habitat in the Great Lake states of Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. One of the key anticipated outcomes should be avoiding the necessity of listing the imperiled Golden-winged Warbler under the Endangered Species Act.

This tri-state project is scheduled to begin later this year with funding available through 2019. The project will be managed in partnership between the Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the American Bird Conservancy. It is complemented by work being conducted on lands by these and other partners with support from the Minnesota's Outdoor Heritage Fund.

The Golden-winged Warbler, which depends on the conservation of key habitat - early successional, or "young," forest habitat - for breeding, has suffered one of the steepest population declines of any North American songbird species. This warbler has shown a decline of more than three percent annually over the last 40 years. Beyond the early-successional issue, other factors contributing to the decline may be suburban sprawl, competition from and hybridization with Blue-winged Warblers, cowbird parasitism, and the loss of wintering habitat in Central and South America.

Basically, however, "this is the poster-bird for recovery of early successional forest habitat," according to George Fenwick, President of the American Bird Conservancy. The new project is expected to create breeding habitat for 1,180 pairs of Golden-winged Warblers and potentially result in an increase of 16,000 individuals within four years.

This will be achieved by providing technical support to private landowners whose properties lie within designated focal areas, helping landowners develop and implement conservation management plans for their properties. Similar to other NRCS programs, financial assistance will be available to qualifying landowners.

In addition to benefiting the warbler, the restoration effort is expected to aid preservation of other bird species such as American Woodcock, Ruffed Grouse, and Black-billed Cuckoo.

Find out more details here:
  and here:


BOOK NOTES: "DIFFERENT" ISN'T EVEN CLOSE

To say that a Guide to Troubled Birds (Penguin, 2014) is "different" or even "strange" would be an understatement. You might try "off-kilter," "peculiar," "screwy," "spaced-out," or "weird." No, you would probably still come up short.

Illustrated and written by Matt Adrian (aka "The Mincing Mockingbird"), this book allows the reader to experience tales of drug abuse, murder, assault, uncontrolled obesity, infidelity, and general sinister behavior among birds.

The slim volume is deemed "an illustrated pocket field guide that enables anyone to quickly identify psychotic, violent, or mentally unstable bird species," a book additionally useful "in the event of an infant or small child being torn apart by a murder of crows."

A mere 64 pages, this dark little work into the reptilian brains and reprehensible behavior of birds can be finished in about 30 minutes. The problem is, you'll go back to it. And read it to your friends. And simply cry laughing.

Reportedly, the author's scientific works have been spitefully ignored throughout his career. And an award "received in Paris turned out - upon translation - to be a restraining order."

Enough said.


ACCESS MATTERS: A PRIVATE KEY WEST QUAIL-DOVE

A rare Key West Quail-Dove was found by Rangel Diaz on 28 December at the Deering Estate at Cutler, south of Miami, Florida. Access became an immediate issue, since the bird was discovered on a private part of the property, closed to the general public. Here are details on the unique Deering Estate at Cutler:

The bird is a Caribbean species, quite rare in South Florida, including the Keys. The fact that the Key West Quail-Dove is also secretive, doesn't help in finding it, either.

Rangel Diaz made arrangements to lead early-morning trips into the property, meeting at the Deering Estate at Cutler Visitor Center parking lot to begin the search down the trail (the estate does not officially open until 10am.). Rangel led these essential morning trips to help birders. The Key West Quail-Dove was seen for the next four mornings, and then again on 5 and 9 January. (Birders were entrusted to pay the regular admission fee to the estate on their way out.)

This kind of accommodation and planning is becoming increasingly important to birders. The information on this Key West Quail-Dove might just as easily have been suppressed, with nobody allowed in early or at all on this part of the estate. Instead, a solution was found and birders discovered once again that it is access that really matters.

Curiously, at about the same time in the Keys, there were up to three other of these rare Key West Quail-Doves seen off and on at Long Key State Park. These began being seen in llate September. Again, these birds were often difficult to find, alternately shy and skittish in the dark underbrush and leaf-litter of the park. One or another was seen irregularly through much of December and January.


IBA NEWS: BUTTERBREDT SPRING

An important Mojave Desert migrant hotspot, Butterbredt Spring, in Kern County, is finally in conservation ownership. That began on 12 December 2014 when the California Department of Parks & Recreation's Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) Trust Fund completed a long-anticipated purchase of 25,316 acres of the Onyx Ranch. The acquisition includes Butterbredt Spring and surrounding desert scrub private lands checkerboard surrounding Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands.

Butterbredt Spring is a desert oasis long popular with California birders as an outstanding migrant trap, especially in spring. In fact, Santa Monica Bay Audubon and other volunteers have helped maintain a cooperative relationship with the land's owners for years. The location is an eBird hotspot:

Butterbredt Spring is considered by the American Bird Conservancy as an Important Bird Area. The location, at the north end of the Mojave Desert, includes Butterbredt Spring in a transition zone and part of a necklace of protected areas including Audubon California's Kern River Preserve and other public lands along the South Kern River. For additional details, see here:

In the coming years, California State Parks will undergo a planning process to determine areas suitable for OHV use, habitat conservation, continued livestock grazing, and a host of other issues. This is where the birding community can weigh in, ensuring that State Parks manages much of these lands for birds and other wildlife.

For more background information - from 2013 - see here:

For information about IBA programs around the world, including those in the U.S., check the National Audubon Society's Important Bird Area program web site at:


WEST COAST CASSIN'S AUKLET DIE-OFF

Last month, we drew your attention to the inclusion of three species on Canada's list of Species of Concern. They were Red-necked Phalarope, Ancient Murrelet, and Cassin's Auklet:

Now, here is further evidence of concern for the last of those species, Cassin's Auklet.

Over the Christmas/New-Year holiday, thousands of dead Cassin's Auklets were found on the outer coasts of Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii in Canada. Bird Studies Canada's British Columbia office received reports of more than 100 of these seabirds per kilometer on some beaches. Most of the birds were young-of-the-year individuals.

Unfortunately, similar events have been occurring since October along the Pacific Coast, as far south as California.

From Washington, for example, more than 700 dead auklets were discovered on beaches in December. And this followed high mortality evidence for October and November.

On the Oregon coast, Herman Biederbeck, biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, remarked that "we have seabird die-offs in the fall and early winter every year, but this year we're seeing elevated numbers."

And in California, emaciated Cassin's Auklets have been washing ashore in Sonoma County and along a swath of California coastline since early November. This was after a period of ocean warming in the region and disappearance of the tiny krill that provide their main source of food.

There are no signs of oiling or poisoning. Evidence strongly suggests that young auklets starved at sea and were washed ashore by strong winds. Higher than usual nesting success in 2014 at the main colonies in the region (e.g., from Triangle Island, BC and in the Haida Gwaii region, south to the Farallon Islands) may be an important factor. Increased studies of ocean temperatures and zooplankton abundance should shed light on what could be causing these deaths.

Click here to watch a five-minute CBC News Vancouver report, including an interview with Bird Studies Canada British Columbia Program Manager Dr. David Bradley:


SOME GOOD NEWS FOR PUGET SOUND WATERBIRDS

As suggested above, seabirds may be viewed as critical "sentinel species," indicators of coastal habitat health. Through a process called "species distribution modeling," the status of many seabirds and their salt-water avian neighbors can be assessed. What is needed, however, would be massive amounts of data.

Enter citizen science. Washington State researchers, led by NOAA conservation biologist Eric J. Ward, used data collected from the Puget Sound Seabird Survey, to determine that things may be looking up for several Puget Sound waterbird species historically in decline.

The study focused on eighteen species - including alcids, cormorants, loons, grebes, and waterfowl - at 62 Puget Sound sites. Ward and his colleagues used seven years' worth of citizen science data from the Puget Sound Seabird Survey.

After putting the data through various statistical functions, the researchers discovered that 14 species were actually increasing. The remaining four species - Brant, White-winged Scoter, Western Grebe, and Red-necked Grebe - appeared to be in decline, consistent with historical records. These decline trends could reflect shifting food sources, habitat loss, or nesting-area threats.

The work also highlighted several hotspots for different species, data that may help identify critical conservation areas.

Although many of these birds in the Puget Sound region are "thought to be depleted relative to abundances in the 1960s-1970s," write the researchers, "our results present a more optimistic picture for a number of species over the last decade."

Perhaps most importantly, none of this would have been conceivable without the participation of enthusiastic volunteer birders. "You could never do this [work] with staff people. You'd never have the budget to send out this many people so consistently for so many years," said Toby Ross, Science Manager at Seattle Audubon and a co-author of the study.

You can access the original study, published in the open-access journal PeerJ in late October, here:


CUBA: MIGRATORY-BIRD DIPLOMACY?

On 17 December, President Barack Obama surprised the world when he announced that he was moving to reestablish diplomatic relation with Cuba and to loosen some trade and travel restrictions with the island. (Diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba were broken by President Eisenhower just over 54 years ago, on 3 January 1961.) The long-standing U.S. trade embargo may eventually be dropped.

Thankfully, about 20 percent of Cuba's landscape has been set aside as national parks and natural areas. While this helps to preserve biodiversity, there are limited funds available for ongoing protection, management, surveys, or research. One aspect of moving toward better relations and even dropping the embargo will surely be increases in tourism on the island. Likewise, there will almost inevitably be increasing development pressure on sensitive environments - e.g., attractive mountains, coastal marshes, and shoreline habitat.

Of course, the Cuban government already has a serious tourism emphasis in pursuit of hard currency, with many foreign visitors visiting such huge vacation resorts as Cayo Coco and Veradero.

From a natural resource viewpoint, there should be a need for cooperation with Cuba for migratory bird conservation as the diplomatic process unfolds. The United States has an international treaty for conservation of migratory birds with Canada, Mexico, Japan, and Russia (formerly with the USSR). This is the Migratory Bird Treaty - signed in 1916, ratified in 1918, and developed since with multiple signatories. Alas, Cuba is not currently included in the multi-national treaty.

Since the administration is officially seeking "modest goals of cooperation," we present here a potential bird connection.

The centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty (originally signed in 1916 with Great Britain, standing in for Canada) is next year. Wouldn't it be grand next year to have Cuba join in that treaty to protect our commonly held resource, migratory birds?

Such an action would surely take some serious work from all parties, including input from non-governmental entities.

Already, there are bird-oriented "people-to-people" connections we have with Cuba, as well as approved "ongoing research" efforts. Perhaps now is the time for concentrated "migratory-bird diplomacy" with Cuba, deeper engagement and experimentation to accompany any closer relations between the two countries. It would be a constructive and modest step, a companion to establishing full diplomatic and economic relations.


U.S. SHOREBIRDS OF CONSERVATION CONCERN

In our last issue we reported on the listing of the rufa Red Knot as officially Threatened under the Endangered Species Act:

Now we report on a broader assessment on the status of U.S. shorebirds.

Last month, the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Partnership (USSCP) released its most recent findings assessing the status of U.S. shorebirds in "Shorebirds of Conservation Concern." This updates the USSCP's 2004 plan and contains many more details. The assessment incorporates: 1) new information on shorebird population sizes and trends, 2) a GIS computation of breeding and nonbreeding range sizes, 3) a revised threats assessment, and 4) climate change vulnerability.

See here for the latest assessment:


TIP OF THE MONTH: START SOMEONE BIRD WATCHING

February is a perfect time to introduce new people to birds. Some folks think that spring migration - say, May - is the ideal time, but this is probably a mistake. Indeed, birds in migration are wonderful - in full color and song - but the experience can be too overwhelming, a veritable bird overload. Too much in the way of birds - or of any new experience - can actually discourage people, creating the perception that there is simply too much to learn!

This month is ideal for a modest and digestible introduction to birds. Winter birds are stable, relatively limited, and often wonderfully accessible. Take wintering waterfowl, or a popular staked-out (but non-harassed) Snowy Owl. It's the right time to bring along a neighbor or friend - who may already be curious because of a backyard feeder - for a short and simple birding trip.

This opportunity also conveniently overlaps with the 18th annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), 13-16 February. This effort is sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. Tens of thousands of volunteers - of all ages and birding skill levels - will count birds in backyards, local parks, refuges, and wherever they happen to be. This free, family-friendly, and neighbor-friendly activity is an ideal introductory "citizen-science" effort involving bird discovery. Visit the GBBC website to explore the opportunities:

This year, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is incorporating Pledge to Fledge, originally launched by the Global Birding Initiative, into the GBBC:

All these opportunities combine to make February the time to invite some new people - family, friends, co-workers, or acquaintances - to join in a bird search and introduce them to the joy of watching and studying wild birds.


LWCF: AN ALMOST-VICTORY

On 29 January, a bipartisan majority of the Senate voted in favor of permanently reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Although the action passed with a 59-39 vote, that majority is still one vote short of the needed 60-vote threshold necessary these days in the Senate.

Just over 50 years ago, Congress passed the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, intended to provide $900 million a year from offshore oil and gas royalties for federal, state, and local parks, refuges, and forests and to enhance local recreational opportunities.

LWCF is probably America's most important conservation funding program, addressing America's open space, clean water, wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation, and outdoor economic needs. Long-term LWCF benefits to birds and bird habitat have truly been phenomenal.

Unfortunately, over the years, Congress has rarely spent the total authorized amount for intended LWCF purposes. We wrote about the diversion and misuse of those funds in last September's issue:

Still, the recent close vote is a symbolic win for conservation and outdoor heritage voices. Such symbolism will soon need a reality boost. Unless Congress acts, LWCF will expire at the end of September.


ARCTIC NWR PROTECTION

And finally, if you returned from a two-week trip to the Amazon, without access to newspapers, telephone, or the Internet, you might not have heard. But on 25 January, President Obama announced new protections for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, and he is recommending to Congress that 12.28 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, including the coastal plain, be designated as official Wilderness, the highest level of protection for public lands, under the Wilderness Act.

The announcement came as a new Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) was released. This is a 15-year plan that details how the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is to be managed. Official Wilderness designation is up to Congress, and although only Congress can designate
Wilderness, this Presidential proposal means the areas will be managed as Wilderness until there is a formal Congressional designation.

For more than three decades, the refuge's coastal plain has been at the center of an ongoing debate over oil and natural gas drilling. Designating the coastal plain and other areas of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as Wilderness will ban oil and gas drilling, and other development in those areas.

This refuge, and especially its coastal plain, is known for a variety of wildlife species, and among birds it is known as vital habitat for seaducks, shorebirds, raptors, and a selection of songbirds.

A fine summary of the announcement and its implications is available here from the National Wildlife Refuge Association:

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