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April Birding Community E-bulletin
This past month there was no stand-out, stay-in-place, mega-rarity that attracted continent-wide attention, but there was a continuing development that deserves revisiting.
This development involves Barnacle Geese.
For a number of years there have been increasingly convincing records of Barnacle Geese from Atlantic Canada and the northeastern U.S. We actually reported on this trend as long ago as February 2005. The fact that this species nests in Greenland of course makes vagrancy to NE North America a viable possibility. While many records in the past were often dismissed due to questionable provenance, the concern over doubtful origin has lessened these days, largely because of the increasing number of reports.
While the number of sightings is still quite small, they are nonetheless increasing. Correspondingly, more state bird record committees are increasingly accepting Barnacle Goose observations without resorting to the old “origins unknown” qualifiers.
Last month we had several reports of Barnacle Geese that deserve mention here. One was a goose on eastern Long Island that first appeared in early January and was still present until at least 3 March. Another Barnacle Goose appeared in late February in southeastern Maine and also remained in the area into the first week of March. There was also one at the Chambly Basin in Quebec (the same location where a very rare Graylag Goose was observed last fall) late in March. And there were early March sightings of one (or possibly more) on the Connecticut River, alternately in southern New Hampshire and southern Vermont.
Other Barnacle Geese reported in early 2012 included at least one in Connecticut from 9 January to 18 January, one in Kent County, Maryland, for most of January, and a long-observed West Newbury, Massachusetts, bird from early November 2011 into the second week of January.
Others observed in November and December 2011 included individuals in Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, and New Brunswick.
It is unclear how many of these sightings may have represented multiple birds, or the same birds simply moving around in the Northeast. It is also possible that there were others in the Northeast as well. Clearly, we need to be on the lookout for these rare geese in the Northeast and, possibly, beyond.
To emphasize the possibilities of observing Barnacle Geese ‘beyond the Northeast,’ we bring to your attention a final report for that species for March, an individual seen and photographed for a few final days of the month near Greenwood, Missouri. Yes, that’s Missouri.
You can view a fine set of photographs of a Barnacle Goose in Kent County, Maryland, taken by Joe Turner on 12 January:
If you want to be guaranteed to see family groups of Whooping Cranes, the place to go is Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast. You can also go on one of a number of tour boats out of Rockport, Texas, that will take you to see the cranes along with a number of other wonderful birds. The cranes are usually visible from mid-October through March along the marshes and open bay waters surrounding the Blackjack Peninsula. About 245 Whooping Cranes wintered this year at the usual locations in and around Aransas NWR.
One of the major conservation issues surrounding the Whooping Crane these days is the point at which these traditional areas around Aransas NWR might reach their “carrying capacity.” This is one reason why projects to establish additional crane flocks have been attempted over the past 35+ years.
The past few years have underscored these “limiting carrying capacity” issues near Aransas, because of low rainfall resulting in saltier bays and fewer blue crabs (the prime food source for the wintering cranes), the continuing squeeze on crane habitat from local development, and competition for the use of local freshwater. This year, biologists at Aransas noticed that a number of Whooping Crane family groups were observed in upland habitats, as opposed to the marshlands where they are usually found.
Occasionally stray Whooping Cranes have spent the winter in Oklahoma or elsewhere in Texas. This year, however, such “straying” was not so rare. At least 16 cranes from the regular Aransas-Wood Buffalo National Park population spent at least part of the winter outside their typical coastal areas. These included locations in eight Texas counties (Matagorda, Refugio, Calhoun, Aransas, Williamson, San Patricio, Maverick, and Caldwell) as well as in Nebraska.
Perhaps the most popular or reliable of these were the three family groups comprised of three birds each, which spent much of the winter at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-run Lake Granger (in Williamson County) about 40 miles northeast of Austin. The first six birds appeared about mid-November or early December. The last three appeared in early February. It is presumed that some of these Whooping Cranes may have actually made the trip to Aransas NWR, but then backtracked north to Lake Granger. The cranes were observed feeding in cultivated fields close to the lake, as well as in shallow waters of the lake itself, most often at sand spit west of Friendship Park.
Many birders observed the cranes along the area near the shoreline, between the boat ramp and the swimming beach, but were careful not to get too close. The birds were also viewed from the dam. One family group left by 5 March; the other two group departed by 14 March. Whether these and other Whooping Cranes will return to these “unusual” wintering areas next winter, and whether this has anything to do with the future of coastal habitat and its salinity, its blue crab numbers, rainfall, or increased regional development will remain to be seen.
To read more about the problems facing the Whooping Cranes around Aransas National Wildlife Refuge this past winter, see:
If you are interested in the Lake Granger Whooping Cranes from this past winter, check here:
The number of nesting pairs of Bermuda Petrels (also called Cahows) in Bermuda has now reached over 100.
The population of this bird was devastated by the introduction of predators such as dogs, rats, and pigs into Bermuda, as well as by hunting by the island’s original and early settlers. This burrow-nesting seabird was thought to have become extinct until 1951 when it was rediscovered on several islets and published by Louis Mowbray and Robert Cushman Murphy. At that time, the entire population was thought to be only 18 pairs.
A recovery program was soon launched to try to bring the Cahow back from the brink of extinction.
We wrote about this species in May of 2009, when as many as four of this extremely rare seabird began investigating Nonsuch Island, a small islet at the entrance of Castle Harbor, Bermuda, for possible nesting.
Last year, the species’ total population had increased to 98 nesting pairs, which produced a record 56 fledged chicks. Today there are 101known pairs of this critically endangered species.
Jeremy Madeiros, Senior Terrestrial Conservation Officer in Bermuda said, “The Recovery Program has reached a critical milestone, but the ultimate objective is to increase the number of nesting Cahows to at least 1,000 nesting pairs. That is the only point at which it can be down-listed from ‘critically endangered’ to ‘threatened’.”
For more information on the Bermuda Petrel’s current status, visit:
Some bird-protection issues never seem to go away, and the ongoing concern for Spotted Owl is just such an issue.
We have written about this species a number of times, most recently in March of last year when we described the concept of helping Spotted Owls by “removing” Barred Owls from their habitat. See our third article here:
In late February, the USFWS released a draft Critical Habitat proposal for the Northern Spotted Owl. The proposal is currently open for public comment.
Some significant old-growth forest areas in the Pacific Northwest have been recommended for additional protection in the proposal. Other portions of the proposed Critical Habitat will have management standards that would allow for logging of owl habitat east of the Cascades. Not surprisingly a number of conservation organizations have already raised objections.
To read the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pages on the owl, the Recovery Plan, and the Critical Habitat issues, see:
To see a summary from the American Bird Conservancy of some of the concerns see:
The famous Asa Wright Nature Centre in Trinidad is currently threatened by increased quarrying in the Arima Valley. Although the latest local quarry expansion has recently been halted, there are still other quarrying sites in existence or planned for Trinidad’s Northern Range.
Approximately170 species of birds occur on the Asa Wright Nature Centre Grounds (formerly the Spring Hill Estate), and many of these are rare, including a famous colony of Oilbirds living in a cave on the property. Regrettably, the Arima Valley area has increasingly experienced encroachment from a number of limestone quarries.
Scott’s Quarry, owned by National Quarries Limited (NQL) and run by Sunway International, has until recently operated behind a ridge which borders the Asa Wright property. In 2009, the Asa Wright Nature Centre began to voice concern about the potential of expanding around the front of the ridge, thus making it visibly intrusive. That same year, NQL gave assurances that there were no plans to move to the northern side of the ridge (which is in full view of Asa Wright facilities). These assurances came as part of a lengthy and on-going dialogue between the four quarries operating in the valley, several local community groups, and the Asa Wright Centre.
Recently NQL, without giving prior notice and in spite of their previous assurances, began bulldozing the northern face of the ridge. This new quarry “scar” is now visible from the famous Asa Wright veranda. This project is not merely unsightly. Stone is being extracted from these hills by massive dynamite blasts. Local wildlife including the rare and spectacular Ornate Hawk- Eagle which nests in the Arima Valley could be driven away. Previous research in the region has shown that excessive noise, and especially vibrations caused by quarrying operations, can drive away local animals and birds.
The Minister of Energy and Energy Affairs has instructed National Quarries Limited to halt all operations in the Scott’s Quarry, and to reforest the site immediately. It is unknown if this is the end of the situation, or merely the end of this round in an ongoing conflict.
In early March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture unveiled a new program of financial incentives to encourage farmers to enroll up to 1 million new acres of grasslands and wetlands into the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Through the CRP, the government pays farmers to set aside about 32 million acres of private farmland for grassland and wetland enrichment.
There are specific enrollment goals within the 32-million acre CRP to benefit wildlife, including many birds. The new program focuses on encouraging land to be set aside for wetlands restoration, which would increase enrolled land by 200,000 acres. Grassland enrollment would increase by 700,000 acres, including land for bird habitat that would especially benefit ducks and other waterbirds, grouse-like birds, and grassland songbirds. The program would also establish 100,000 new CRP acres to be set aside for some special species, including pollinators – bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.
Current CRP contracts on approximately 6.5 million acres expire on 30 September. Given current high corn and soybean prices, there is concern that farmers may put more of these lands into production in order to increase profitability. The corn ethanol situation also puts added pressure on the wildlife conservation side of the equation. Among Iowa farmers, for example, land might bring in $140 to $150 an acre annually for the CRP rental program, but could yield well over $200 an acre if planted in corn or beans. Needless to say, these 10-year and 15-year regular CRP rental payment amounts will vary according to region.
Under the new program, producers whose lands meet certain eligibility requirements under conservation practices can enroll their lands into a “continuous” category of the CRP at any time. This eliminates the need for landowners to wait for a general CRP signup. Continuous CRP (or CCRP) is intended to expedite conservation involving of some of the most ecologically sensitive areas of privately owned land.
This CCRP incentivizing increases a bonus payment (a signing incentive payment – SIP) for some practices from $100 to $150 per acre, further increasing the attractiveness of the whole conservation package.
To read a good summary of the issue from the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, see:
The last fairly common breeding bird of the U.S. and Canada with an unknown wintering area has finally revealed its long-held secret. After years of inquiry, researchers have concluded that Black Swifts annually travel more than 4,000 miles to spend the winter in Brazil. The information was announced last month in THE WILSON JOURNAL OF ORNITHOLOGY. The research team used geolocators placed on Black Swifts to solve the mystery of where they spend the winter months.
For more information see the related article from the DENVER POST here:
And view a nice summary by Nathan Pipelow with many details and accompanying maps here:
Long-term readers of the Birding Community E-bulletin will know how important the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) is for the preservation of wild places, wildlife, and wild birds. Moreover, LWCF is vital to the security and establishment of Important Bird Areas (IBAs) across the U.S. LWCF is the “conservation royalty” from offshore oil and gas revenue that often goes unspent when it comes to conservation. Unfortunately, these monies are regularly diverted to non-conservation purposes.
Last month, in a rare bipartisan effort (resulting in a vote of 76 for and 22 against), the U.S. Senate added two years of substantial LWCF funding ($1.4 billion over two years) to the Transportation Bill that needed to be acted upon by 31 March.
What’s more, the RESTORE Act was added to the Senate transportation mix, an effort that would dedicate 80 percent of the Clean Water penalties associated with the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil blowout specifically to the restoration of Gulf Coast resources and economies.
(There were also important parts of the huge Highway Bill that included walking and bicycle elements, and rails-to-trails features that were important for advocates of sustainable ecotourism.)
Unfortunately, U.S. House of Representatives did not act on the Senate proposal. Instead, the House passed a stopgap extension for current highway funding on 29 March, a last-minute extension of the old and inadequate Transportation Bill for 90 days. In other words, they punted.
About two hours later, the Senate, in a voice vote, went along.
Now, the 90-day clock is ticking.
For additional information about IBA programs worldwide, including those across the U.S., check the National Audubon Society’s Important Bird Area program web site at:
A Lazuli Bunting that was first identified at the feeders of Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Sanctuary on 4 February remained at least until the first week in March. This western species which typically winters in Mexico was only the third record for Massachusetts.
Unlike the appearance of rarities that show up at difficult-to-access locations, the Lazuli Bunting represented a classic case of ideal access at a welcoming venue for birders. During its stay, an estimated 500+ visitors came to see this rarity while it was visiting the Mass Audubon sanctuary. Not only is Wellfleet Bay a sanctuary, it specifically features a spectacular indoor view through large windows situated specifically so birders can view bird feeders. The bunting was fairly reliable through February, and volunteer hosts and Mass Audubon staff kept regular tabs on the bird and routinely fielded calls about the bunting’s comings and goings.
It is experiences like this which birders truly appreciate, and that set the standard against which other rarity encounters can be measured. Admittedly, not all rare birds show up at such convenient localities, but the Massachusetts Lazuli Bunting experience is a goal to pursue because, clearly, access makes a real difference.
If you’ve been wanting a completely thorough book on the seabirds of North America, a volume amply illustrated with stunning photos, your wait is over. This latest contribution by Steve N. G. Howell, PETRELS, ALBATROSSES, AND STORM-PETRELS OF NORTH AMERICA: A PHOTOGRAPHIC GUIDE, (Princeton 2012) is not only useful for North American waters, it is useful worldwide. The book combines valuable and detailed text along with hundreds of full-color images (most by the author) to help the reader better understand this remarkable and often difficult-to-identify group of birds. The introduction describes pelagic habitats and offers up to date comments on seabird taxonomy Individual species accounts describe key identification features, similar species, habitat, behavior, and molt for 76 species. But it is the photographs and their accompanying detailed captions which are especially compelling and will at once command the attention of pelagic birders. Clearly, this volume has set a new standard for helping to understand pelagic birds.
With the arrival of spring it’s time to begin reviewing the bird sounds that will soon draw many of us into the field. One of the best ways to help you remember these sounds is through the use of mnemonics (pronounced ne-MON-icks). These verbal cues can be used to help us recall and remember bird songs. Mnemonics may be classified in three different ways: the acoustic analogy, the simile, and the forced translation. The acoustic analogy connects the song with a known sound (e.g., a Rusty Blackbird sounding like a squeaky hinge on an old wooden gate); the simile makes an associated connection between species (e.g., an Evening Grosbeak sounding like an enthusiastic and enriched House Sparrow), and the forced translation has the bird saying “words” (e.g., the Olive-sided Flycatcher calling out “Quick, three beers!”).
The best way to remember mnemonics is to use whatever memory-jogger works best for you. You can even make up your own. Remember, you don’t have to accept or use other people’s mnemonics, no matter how well respected the source may be. Use whatever works for you, or whatever helps you become more attuned to listening for bird sounds.
In January 2009, we reported on the release of the “Continental Conservation Plan for Spruce Grouse” that had appeared the previous fall:
Earlier this year, the state of Vermont released its companion state-wide plan for Spruce Grouse.
Although considered common in Canada, Alaska, and Maine, in Vermont the species is near the southern edge of its range. Most of the area where the birds are found in the state is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department.
Vermont surveys between 1991 and 2003 suggested a stable population of 150 to 300 adult Spruce Grouse, but surveys conducted since then indicate there may be a decline in numbers. Since 2008, about 130 Spruce Grouse from Quebec and Maine have been translocated to appropriate black spruce wetlands and mixed spruce-balsam fir-larch habitat in Vermont.
Removing the Spruce Grouse from Vermont’s “Endangered and Threatened Species List” could be recommended if, on average for five years, there are increases in self-sustaining populations and dispersal between populations.
And click here for the Vermont plan itself.
Finally, a little video that was released in late March is a must-watch for any birder with a sense of humor. It was done by Boulder Oak Films, the same outfit that produced “Opposable Chums: Guts & Glory at The World Series of Birding,” Jason Kessler’s award-winning documentary as seen on PBS. This little video is produced and directed by Jason Kessler, and stars him as well. Don’t miss it!
After all is said and done, this may end up as an essential contribution to the playbook that summarizes our modern birding culture:
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