There were some fantastic rarities found in May, probably all potentially deserving a place in this month's rarity focus. The contenders included reports (mostly in chronological order) of Crescent-chested Warbler in Arizona, Flame-colored Tanager in Arizona, Plain-capped Starthroat in Arizona, Little Egret in Nova Scotia, New York, and Newfoundland, Little Stint in Oregon, Nazca Booby in California, Tufted Flycatcher in Arizona, European Golden-Plover in Quebec, and a flurry of fascinating waterfowl,shorebirds, and songbirds from various Alaska outposts.
Was it because there were more birds in motion in May or because there were more bird watchers in motion in May? Or was it a combination of both?
Regardless, rather than showcase any of these wonder-birds we decided to go to Kansas instead.
On 8 May, Chris Lituma, a post-doctoral research associate at the University of Tennessee, was leading a group of students through a multi-state field study, including a stop at Scott Lake State Park in western Kansas, a site that had been recommended to him by a friend.
Once at the park, Lituma began assisting students in identifying the birds, but a bird in some cottonwoods and willows was especially problematic. "The students asked me 'Hey, what's this bird?' and I briefly looked at it and assumed it was a Black-headed Grosbeak," said Lituma. Students then looked up the female grosbeak in a field guide and concluded that the illustration did not match the bird they were observing. "At that point, I took another look at the bird and almost immediately realized this was no grosbeak; this was something very special, something rare." Lituma thumbed through multiple field guides until he reviewed a National Geographic field guide and narrowed his identification down to three species, all very unlikely flycatcher species. After a short group discussion with the students, everyone was in agreement that they were looking at a Piratic Flycatcher.
This is remarkable. There are about a dozen records of this bird in the United States, including Texas, New Mexico, and once in Florida. The species normally ranges from Mexico (usually no farther north than Veracruz) south to Argentina. The source of these birds in the U.S. is uncertain; spring records could actually involve overshooting southern migrants from a migratory population in northern South America.
Regardless of their origins, no Piratic Flycatcher has been observed this far north, and certainly never in Kansas!
The Scott Lake State Park manager, Greg Mills, remarked that the sighting brought in nearly 75 birders from 13 states, including Virginia. The Piratic Flycatcher was observed through noon on Sunday, 10 May, but not thereafter.
See here to access photos by Andrew Burnett:
PROPOSED MBTA EXPANSION
Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced its intent to strengthen implementation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), one of the country's oldest and most important wildlife conservation laws. This proposed rulemaking is intended to ensure that MBTA protections are extended to address various approaches to "incidental take," specifically, threats to migratory birds from oil pits, power lines, communications towers, and other pervasive hazards.
Today, uncovered oil waste pits trap and kill birds, gas flares lure and incinerate birds, and unprotected communication towers and power lines kill and electrocute birds by the tens of millions annually.
The official Notice of Intent was published in the Federal Register on Tuesday, May 26, which initiates a 60-day public comment period. There should be many opportunities to weigh in, including scoping meetings this month and next. Final comments are due by 27 July. Details on the proposed rulemaking and the ways to make comments are available from the Federal Register, reproduced here:
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, ratified by Congress in 1918, helped bring an end to a number of major threats to birds in the early 20th century, such as uncontrolled market hunting and the devastating plume trade. Today, the MBTA is awaiting appropriate legislative improvements to address some of the 21st century's bird protection problems.
IBA NEWS: MBCC DECISIONS
Toward the very end of April, the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission (MBCC) met in Washington DC to make decisions on the acquisition of National Wildlife Refuge properties through the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund (MBCF). The MBCF is best known as the fund where "Duck Stamp" (officially called the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp) dollars are held while awaiting investment.
The commission approved acquisitions for nine NWR properties, with over $8,825,000 committed. The nine NWRs are as follows:
- A combined project for two refuges - Felsenthal NWR in Arkansas, and Upper Ouachita NWR in Louisiana - was approved, securing 1,383 acres at Felsenthal and 861 acres at Upper Ouachita.
- A 909-acre tract at Cache River NWR in Arkansas that was approved for acquisition.
- Cat Island NWR in Louisiana received approval to acquire 383 acres.
- A bargain acquisition of 1,778 acres to increase the size of Laguna Atascosa NWR in Texas was approved.
- Another Texas acquisition was for 360 acres at San Bernard NWR.
- There were 288 acres added to Mackay Island NWR in North Carolina.
- And finally, two refuges had lease renewals approved: 10-year leases on 9,580 acres at Red Rock Lakes NWR in Montana, and a five-year lease of 502 acres at St. Catherine Creek NWR in Mississippi.
We could describe in detail the wisdom behind making these particular acquisitions, including the specific bird-conservation value of each, but suffice it to say that of the nine refuges, five are considered globally Important Bird Areas (IBAs) and three are considered state IBAs. Only one does not have a current IBA designation.
You can get details on these refuges here, from the Friends of the Migratory Bird/Duck Stamp:
You can get details on these refuges here, from the Friends of the Migratory Bird/Duck Stamp:
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:
Finally, this represents a good opportunity to remind readers that the new annual Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation [Duck] Stamp, for the first time costing $25, will be released at the end of this month. And remember, if you don't buy a Stamp you can't take any credit for these sorts of vital MBCC (and IBA) acquisitions.
LAYSAN DUCK SUCCESS CONTINUES
Laysan Ducks once lived on the main Hawaiian Islands, but disappeared about 800 years ago with the arrival of invasive rats. The ducks became restricted to Laysan Island, in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, starting about 150 years ago. In fact, by 1911, the Laysan Duck population was estimated at fewer than 20 birds. But in 2004, the island ducks were successfully reintroduced to Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.
Following rabbit and rat eradication, habitat restoration, and translocation efforts, the population approached 1,000 birds by 2010 on both Laysan and Midway. Unfortunately, the Japanese tsunami in 2011 caused a 40 percent decrease in the population. Today, the ducks continue to be threatened by avian disease, severe storms, and sea level rise.
Last September, 28 young wild Laysan Ducks were brought from Midway to the remote Kure Atoll State Wildlife Sanctuary in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. They were brought by ship, and then were released.
"Laysan ducks do not fly between Atolls, so each additional island reintroduction helps to restore its distribution and the biodiversity of Hawaii," explained Dr. Michelle Reynolds of the US Geological Survey.
To prepare Kure Atoll for the ducks, the State of Hawaii, DLNR Division of Forestry and Wildlife (DOFAW) had replaced alien weeds with planted native plants and removed invasive species such as predatory rats and ants. The agency also created wetlands, and helped to otherwise restore native habitat.
The DLNR reported that 19 new downy Laysan ducklings were observed last month. Broods can range in size from 2-10 ducklings.
Kure Atoll State Wildlife Sanctuary Manager Cynthia Vanderlip said, "Everyone working on this project to help save an endangered species is thrilled that this reintroduction may reduce extinction risk of this rare Hawaiian endemic duck. We all feel like proud parents."
For a video clip of Laysan ducks at Kure Atoll State Wildlife Sanctuary and Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, see here:
SANTA BARBARA OIL MESS
It's not pretty, and it's a bit like déjà vu, harkening back to 1969.
The 1969 spill at Santa Barbara was so dramatic that it helped to ignite an environmental movement and launch a host of federal and state laws to protect the environment. Although last month's spill is far smaller than the 1969 catastrophe, it still prompted California's governor to declare a state of emergency in the county.
A broken 24-inch diameter onshore pipeline ruptured, and it spewed oil down a storm drain and into the ocean for several hours before it could be shut off. The pipeline transports crude oil for 10.6 miles from Exxon Mobil's breakout storage tanks in Las Flores Canyon to a pump station in Gaviota. Plains All American, the company responsible for this pipeline, is among the worst violators listed by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration. The federal agency said that the company surpassed all but four of more than 1,700 operators in the area of safety and maintenance infractions.
The 105,000-gallon spill is yet another "wake-up call" for the hazards associated with oil development and the nation's dependence on fossil fuels.
The California region's ocean waters host crucial forests of kelp. The seaweed grows to lengths of 130 feet, and it helps support more than 800 species, including many small fish and invertebrates. If these small creatures ingest the oil they will either die directly or get eaten by larger animals, thus spreading toxic material up the food chain.
Larger marine mammals (e.g., sea lions and sea otters) also forage for food in the underwater vegetation. When kelp breaks loose and washes up on shore, arthropods and birds eat it; shorebirds, gulls, terns, and cormorants forage at or near the shoreline. About 19,000 gray whales migrate through the channel at this time of season, sometimes as close as 100 feet from shore. And intertidal areas support sea anemones, soft corals, shrimp, muscles, crabs, and small fish.
Bird species face some of the greatest risks. Foraging on the beach often means running into sticky oil that washes up on shore. Brown Pelicans-which spent almost 50 years on the Federal list of Endangered and Threatened species before their removal in 2009 - dive into the water to pursue fish, which means they can potentially end up plunging into an oil slick.
It may be too early to tell exactly what will happen at Santa Barbara. Ben Halpern, a marine conservation researcher at UC Santa Barbara, says the most visible short term effect will be bird deaths from eating oil-related chemicals. "It's clearly a disaster, but it will be relatively contained," he says. "There will be major impact on the local scale, but not the regional one."
At the same time, oil spill protocols have triggered an active response from the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Crews have deployed for clean-up, wildlife rescue, and damage assessment. International Bird Rescue and a number of local organizations have also been helping with clean-up and wildlife assistance. The Santa Barbara Audubon Society has been monitoring the beaches and watching for dead and injured birds.
BOOK NOTES: NEW FIELD GUIDE TITLES FROM ABA
Just when you think there is no more room for another field guide on your shelf, the American Birding Association has released a new series of ABA State Field Guides. From entry level to intermediate and beyond, these colorful and useful new books will offer and ideal state field guide companion for pack, pocket, or car.
Abundantly illustrated with high quality photographs by Brian Small and a cadre of other recognized photographers, each state guide provides concise information pertaining to identification, preferred habitat within each state, and a description of the primary song or vocalizations for each of more than 250 species for every state. Information on where and when to expect each species in each state, as well as the species' relative abundance make these attractive guides both useful and convenient.
Authored by a leading bird authority from each state and reasonably priced at $24.95, these new ABA State Field Guides are useful for both the traveling birder and the student new to birding. At the time of this writing, guides for New Jersey, Colorado, Florida, California, and Pennsylvania are currently available.
FEDERAL BIRD-SAFE BUILDING LEGISLATION PROPOSED
News items on regional efforts to reduce bird deaths through collisions with buildings have appeared many times in the Birding Community E-bulletin, including most recently in March and April 2015:
Last month, Congressmen Mike Quigley (D-IL) and Morgan Griffith (R-VA) introduced H.R. 2280, the Federal Bird-Safe Buildings Act. The bill is designed to prevent the deaths of millions of birds by calling for each public building constructed, acquired, or significantly altered by the federal government's General Services Administration (GSA) to incorporate - to the maximum extent possible - bird-safe building materials and design features. We know that many buildings constructed by GSA are already, in fact, bird-friendly. The legislation, however, would require GSA to take similar actions on existing buildings, at least where practicable
"This bill is a balanced approach, applying strictly to federal government buildings. It is simple, cost neutral legislation that will protect millions of birds," said Congressman Griffith. "The U.S. Federal Bird-Safe Buildings Act, a cost neutral bill, would help prevent these deaths by including bird-safe building materials and design features across federal buildings," added Congressman Quigley.
The bill has been referred to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
You can find out more specifics on the bill here:
and get details from the American Bird Conservancy here:
ACCESS MATTERS: HELP WITH NAZCA BOOBY
You may have noticed the mention of Nazca Booby in the Rarity Focus at the start of this E-bulletin. It was on Wednesday, 20 May, that Jim Howard found a booby on the Arch Rock at the east end of Anacapa Island, 11 miles off the Ventura County coast of California and part of the Channel Islands National Park. Originally thought to be a Masked Booby, the bird was photographed later in the day by Tim Hauf on an Island Packers tour boat. (Island Packers is the concessionaire for visitor access to the National Park.) At that point, the bird was identified as a very similar Nazca Booby. This species, which nests mostly in the Galapagos Islands as well as a few islands off of Mexico, has only been recorded in California twice before (and only once alive).
Birders started investigating options, and it was determined that views could be possible from the Island Packers boat trips as they arrive at the Island, and after the departure from the Island, or during the non-landing wildlife cruises as the boat approaches the east end of the Island. The Nazca Booby site was not visible from the island itself, only from the sea.
Birders were told to let the captain and crew know that they wanted to see the booby, and accommodations were made for viewing options. It was previous experiences and good relations with Island Packers which made these options a reality.
You can view a pair of photos of the Nazca Booby taken by Island Packer employee, Joel Barrett, on Thursday, 21 May. The photos are associated with his eBird report:
For the following days, according to many birders, Joel Barrett and the crew of the Island Packers boat, Island Adventure, went "above and beyond," making special trips from the island just with the birders aboard, after dropping off all the other passengers ashore.
Unfortunately, despite multiple tries, including four attempts on Sunday, 24 May, the Nazca Booby was not relocated. Still, there are lessons that birders can learn here: knowing the concessionaire and the staff at Island Packers was essential in making the special effort, and maintaining good relations with people like this is a prerequisite to making and maintaining birder access in the future.
RODENTICIDE NOW SUSPECTED IN SNOW GOOSE DEATHS
In mid-March, about 2,200 migrating Snow Geese were found dead at two state Wildlife Management Areas in eastern Idaho. The northbound geese were suspected victims of avian cholera, a disease fairly common among Snow Geese during spring migrations. At least one bird had shown symptoms consistent with cholera, but other birds showed no signs of the disease.
When 24 randomly selected dead birds were sent to the Idaho Fish and Game Wildlife Health Lab for further testing, the results were inconclusive for avian cholera. The tests did indicate, however, that some of the geese had died from zinc phosphide poisoning. Farmers apply zinc phosphide to their fields to kill crop-damaging rodents.
Idaho Fish and Game Wildlife Bureau Chief, Jeff Gould, commented last month that "In the last 15 years, we've had very few cases for non-target species for this rodenticide. This was fairly unique." Gould said it was impossible to tell from the sample what portion of the entire die-off was due to disease and what portion was due to poisoning. "There's going to be ongoing sampling in the future to make sure we understand that threat," Gould said.
TIP OF THE MONTH: FESTIVAL CONSERVATION PROJECTS
This is a great season for birding and nature festivals. These festivals are typically wonderful ways to learn about birds, other wildlife, and the unique natural areas unfamiliar to you.
But here is a question that you might consider asking the organizers when going to a festival this season: "What is the conservation project associated with your event?"
Increasingly, festivals are going beyond avitourism and the educational expectations of these events, making a connection to regional site-based conservation efforts. Frankly, it's not enough to show the local Chamber of Commerce that beds are being filled, restaurant meals being served, and cars rented. Important on-the-ground conservation projects are increasingly also expected.
The ones already with this added feature are varied, depending on location and needs. Examples increasingly include fund-raising for a specific IBA site, giving participants a hands-on experience by engaging in barbed-wire fence-marking to protect prairie-chickens, having a carbon-offset option going to a local restoration project, including the "Duck Stamp" with the cost of festival registration, and getting participants to get their hands dirty in a specific re-vegetation project.
These sorts of conservation actions should become a new standard for all birding and nature festivals. And they can't occur if we don't start asking.
IF YOU MISSED THE SAGEBRUSH SEA
Again, it seems that we have a sage-grouse story in almost every issue of the E-bulletin. So, here is a simple recommendation for this month. If you missed the broadcast on Nature (PBS) last month called The Sagebrush Sea that was produced by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, you can find it online. It's well worth a 53-minute investment of time.
The show focuses, highlights, and describes not only the sagebrush itself, but also the antelope, badgers, lizards, rabbits, wrens, bluebirds, owls, prairie dogs, raptors, and migrating birds of all descriptions that live in the sagebrush. It is the Greater Sage-Grouse, however, that is the star of the show, front and center.
Watching The Sagebrush Sea will give you a new appreciation for the issues at hand, at a time when the fate of sage habitat and the sage-grouse is being decided at federal agencies, state houses, and in courtrooms across the West, as well as in the nation's capital.
Now is a good time to remember that an Endangered Species Act decision about the wisdom of keeping the Greater Sage-Grouse as a "candidate species" under the ESA is due by the end of September.
In the meantime, you can access The Sagebrush Sea here:
RIP: NOBLE PROCTOR
Starting to watch birds at the age of five, Noble Proctor never looked back. Following his graduation from high school, Noble spent several years working in construction to cover the expenses of his developing photographic career and the cost of cross-country Greyhound bus tickets that allowed him to see North America the least expensive way possible in the 1960s. Eventually, Noble went on to receive degrees from Southern Connecticut State University and the University of Connecticut, where he earned his Ph.D.
As a professor at Southern Connecticut State University for over three decades, Noble touched the lives and educated literally thousands of students in the fields of biology, ornithology, botany, mycology, and natural history. An accomplished photographer and author of numerous publications, his books include the widely acclaimed Manual of Ornithology (with P. J. Lynch, 1993), A Field Guide to North Atlantic Wildlife (with P.J. Lynch, 2005), and A Field Guide to the Southeast Coast & Gulf of Mexico (with P.J. Lynch, 2011). Noble also made significant contributions to the successful completion of the classic 5th edition of the Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Birds.
For over 30 years, Noble was a much sought-after tour leader, and throughout his career he took groups of birders to over 65 different countries. At the "edge" of the ABA (American Birding Association) Area, Noble helped "discover" Attu Island, at the end of the Aleutian Chain of islands, as a birdable and extraordinarily exciting birding destination.
Noble's long list of personal awards and recognition achievements are too numerous to list in this short space, but suffice it to say all were justifiably earned and attained.
His charismatic personality, irrepressible sense of humor, remarkable field skills, and his exceptional ability to share his knowledge of field natural history were legend. In many ways, his life can best be summarized by a quote from Gandi that for many years had a prominent place on his desk: "Live as if you were to die tomorrow; learn as if you were to live forever."
Noble Proctor passed away in late May. He was 73.