21 November 2007

Name List Update Released for World Birds

By James Ed. Ducey

A list of names used for World Bird Names has just been released after another set of significant revisions.

A committee of the International Ornithological Society developed the list.

“The names are based on a consensus of leading ornithologists worldwide and conform to standard rules of construction,” the World Bird Names website says. "Ten principles guide the choice of recommended English names of birds."

The bird names are within thirty groups, combined among the type of species such as waterfowl, raptors, shorebirds, nightjars, bulbuls to Old World warblers, buntings tanagers and allies. A web browser search option can be used to find a particular online entry.

The IOC has specific naming guielines to develop a single accepted name for each taxon of bird. The group promoting the IOC list have worked with other ornithology organisations to rectify bird names. The list has been acepted in Germany and Switzerland. A point of contention with North American taxonomists is the potential for eliminating the hyphen from names, the IOC website says.

The most recent update was November 15th, and now includes revisions from Clements Sixth Edition, released in early October. The website also details any species revisions, corrections made in the list, to revise spelling matters, a few typos.

The names page of the groups' website explains some upcoming changes to the list.

"The next major upgrade, led by Taxonomic Editor David Donsker and scheduled for late December 2007, will include all proposed species splits and taxonomic changes published in peer-reviewed ornithological journals in 2005-2007. Improved alignment of our species taxonomy with that of Birdlife International is one of our goals for that upgrade."

Frank Gill and Minturn Wright were the co-chairs of the IOC Standing Committee on English Names, in April 2007. Participants from around the world have helped with the project, underway since 1991.

The primary goal of the IOC is develop a standard list of names for birds around the world, and allow free use of the resource.

A spreadsheet with the text in spreadsheet format is available for downloading.

18 November 2007

Protection of Playa Wetlands Enhance Ogallala Aquifer

James Ed. Ducey

Efforts to conserve and manage playa wetlands of the southern High Plains provides important sites for recharge of the Ogallala aquifer, according to conservation officials.

More than 60,000 shallow, and seasonal playa wetlands spread across the landscape of the southern High Plains, according to officials of the Playa Lakes Joint Venture. The wetlands occur in eastern New Mexico, western Texas, the Oklahoma panhandle, southeast Colorado, southwest Kansas, and to a more limited extent, western Nebraska.

“Playas are the primary source of recharge for the Ogallala,” according to group officials, and “contribute between 85 and 95% of the total water returned to the aquifer” in the southern portion of the region, according to researchers. “This amounts to about 1 to 3 inches per year, depending on their location and depth” to groundwater. The wetlands are also “important wetland habitat for wildlife in the region, supporting millions of ducks, shorebirds and other migratory and resident birds and other wildlife year-round.”

“Whether they are wet or dry depends on the local weather,” according to joint venture findings. “Playas can be wet year-round, or stay dry for months and sometimes years on end. This natural, wet/dry cycle of playas that helps them recharge the Ogallala aquifer. Playa basins are lined with clay soils, so when they dry out, deep cracks form in the basin and along the perimeter of the playa. When water comes into the playa from rainfall or other runoff event, it runs through these cracks and edges and into the underlying water table.”

“Once the connection is made that playas recharge the Ogallala, almost any farmer or rancher will express an interest in protecting it,” said Mike Carter, coordinator for the joint venture. “In fact, in a recent survey of playa landowners, we found that more than 70% are willing to conserve their playas.”

One of the most effective means of conserving these wetlands is to “maintain or restore the native prairie grasses around” the basin, the group has determined. “Grass buffers filter out sediments and contaminants before they get into the playa.”

Landowners involved in wetland management projects typically are enthusiastic if the change is also beneficial to their operation and bottomline, Carter said. “Sometimes, producers do it just for habitat or birds but this is a less common case. Frankly, we would rather they do it for their bottomline and for that opportunity to be pervasive in programs.”

“Buffer strips protect the wetland but there are many species such as the Long-billed Curlew, meadowlarks, sparrows that also use the buffer,” Carter said. “Conservation dollars are so limited that we have to look for 2 for 1 opportunities like buffers that protect wetlands and provide habitat.”

The success of a project for wild birds is measured “against the ability of the change to increase carrying capacity of a habitat for the desired species or group of species.”

Examples of current projects include Drummond Flats and the Jamestown Wildlife Area.

“More than 70 percent“ of playa wetlands ”have been altered from their natural state due to pitting, filling, cropping and road construction, among other threats,” according to findings of the PLJV group. “The biggest threat is sedimentation” which occurs “when rain or irrigation water carries loose soils into the playa, gradually filling it. Playas filled with sediment can no longer hold as much water for the same amount of time, significantly reducing their value for recharge and wildlife. Researchers estimate more than half of all playas are filled with sediment and are effectively ‘fossilized’ and have lost most wetland functions.”

The PLJV, which has a pivotal role in protecting the playa wetland resources in the high plains, is comprised of federal and state wildlife agencies, conservation groups, private industry and landowners. Its mission is to “conserve playas, other wetlands and associated landscapes … for the benefit of birds, other wildlife and people.” Its general headquarters are in Lafayette, CO.

Incentive programs that can assist in wetland management include the Wetland Reserve Program and Wetlands Restoration Non Floodplain Initiative provided through the Farm Bill, and administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Also, the Farmable Wetlands Initiative is available through the Conservation Reserve Program. The Fish and Wildlife Service, and state and private agencies can also provide funding to conserve wetlands.

16 November 2007

Waterfowl Conservation Group Acquires Platte River Property

By James Ed. Ducey

An important tract of Platte River channel habitat in central Nebraska has been acquired for waterbird management.

"This is Ducks Unlimited’s second largest Nebraska acquisition and DU’s first on the Platte River,” said Steve Donovan, DU’s manager of conservation programs for Nebraska.

Whooping Cranes have already been sighted using riverine habitat at the site, which is also beneficial to waterfowl, including geese and many types of ducks.

The tract was purchased from the Younkin Estate in October, using funds from a grant from the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and other donors. Other grant partners include Prairie Plains Resource Institute, Nebraska Environmental Trust, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and several private landowners.

The 400-acre property extends for a mile along the river, just west of Rowe Sanctuary, owned by the National Audubon Society. DU and the Audubon Society are entering into an agreement to allow Audubon to manage this property as an extension of its Rowe Sanctuary.

The Younkin place is also in close proximity to other protected habitats managed by The Nature Conservancy, Platte River Whooping Crane Maintenance Trust and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, all partners in the grant.

"DU will be working with partners on a restoration plan for the property over the next six months," Mr. Donovan said. "We have already submitted a proposal to the Nebraska Environmental Trust seeking a grant to assist with the cost of proposed restoration work. If we are successful, habitat restoration actitivities will be completed in late 2008."

Platte River on the Younkin property, during a period of extremely low flows on the river. Looking east from the bridge.

Grasslands on the Younkin property. Looking east from the highway. Images courtesy of Steve Donovan, Ducks Unlimited.

The Big Bend Reach of the Platte River NAWCA grant will protect and enhance about 2,600 acres of some of the most important migratory bird habitat in Nebraska, according to a press release issued by Ducks Unlimited. This bend serves the vast majority of waterfowl that travel through the state, including millions of ducks, geese, shorebirds, Sandhill Cranes and several endangered species like the Piping Plover and Least Tern.

The Big Bend Reach of the Platte River is one of North America’s most popular birding areas, and the site of an annual Rivers and Wildlife Celebration of the Sandhill Cranes and other spring fowl.

NAWCA is a federal grant program that funds wetland habitat conservation projects throughout North America.

The North American Waterfowl Management Plan identifies the Platte River as a waterfowl habitat of major concern due to long-term habitat loss and reduced water flows. In addition, aggressive, non-native plant species are choking the river and reducing the river’s ability to provide critically needed habitat for migratory birds.

15 November 2007

Strategy for Asian Waterbird Conservation Released

By James Ed. Ducey

An Asian Waterbird Census Strategy document has just been released by Wetlands International.

“Its target is that by 2015, a high quality, standard waterbird monitoring programme will be carried out in all countries in the Asia-Pacific region which covers most of the international important wetland sites for waterbirds,” said David Li Zuowei, the AWC International Coordinator for Wetlands International. “The AWC strategy is the major output of the AWC Coordinators' Meetings held in 2003 and 2006 for achieving a high standard waterbird monitoring programme in the Asia-Pacific region.”

“The Asian Waterbird Census has rapidly developed to become the largest biodiversity monitoring programme in the Asia-Pacific region, monitoring millions of waterbirds and their key wetland areas in the region,” according to details on the groups website. “The Asian Waterbird Census: Development Strategy 2007-2015 is intended to function as a guide not only for Wetlands International and the organisations that coordinate the Asian Waterbird Census (AWC) in the region but also for each individual who participates, supports or expresses interest in the AWC.”

The Asian Waterbird Census covers South, East and Southeast Asia (including eastern Russia) and Australasia. A number of groups are involved in the programme, including the Australasian Wader Studies Group, Bird Conservation Society of Thailand, Hong Kong Bird Watching Society, Malaysian Nature Society, and Singapore Nature Society, for example.

Countries which are part of the Asian Waterbird census programme. Participating countries are shown in blue. From the Asian Waterbird Census Strategy.

The “objectives and priority actions to develop the Asian Waterbird Census in 2007–2015” are:

To enhance geographic and site coverage of the AWC.
To ensure the high quality of AWC data collected in order to monitor waterbird populations effectively and support the implementation of conservation actions.
To develop a fundraising strategy for the AWC and seek funding opportunities to support its development.
To build the capacity of national networks to monitor waterbirds and wetlands.
To enhance communication and public awareness of the AWC.
To support improved decision making on waterbird and wetland conservation at national and international levels.
To develop a coordination mechanism for effective operation and targeting of the AWC.

For each objective, the report discusses 25 specific actions to be undertaken, and 83 steps for their implementation.

“The strength of the AWC is that it is a long-term, volunteer-based international network that has been able to continue despite a low input of resources,” the report says. “The Asian Waterbird Census programme was initiated in the Indian subcontinent in 1987 in the framework of the International Waterbird Census, which had successfully been running from the mid Sixties in Europe. Since its inception, the AWC has rapidly developed to become the largest biodiversity monitoring programme in the Asia-Pacific region. To date, more than 6,300 sites from 27 countries have been surveyed, with the active participation of tens of thousands of volunteers.”

During the first year of the programme, there were 345 sites surveyed, and within two years, the number increased to over 1000. Numbers have fluctuated since then, and in 2004, the most recent year given in the strategy report, 1075 sites were surveyed.

“A review of the development of the AWC over the past 20 years clearly reveals that the programme has seen many achievements,” said Mr. Li, in a posting on the Oriental Birding forum. “Its greatest strength has been its ability to mobilise large networks of volunteers to undertake the census work. However, there have also been challenges, typical of the problems in many developing Asian countries. Major issues are the lack of adequate census capacity, equipment and financial support, and changes in levels of volunteer interest, resulting in inconsistent site coverage and data quality. Because, worldwide, financial resources for this work are very limited, it has not been possible to provide support strong enough to make a significant improvement to these constraints.”

The AWC aims to contribute to the conservation of waterbirds and their wetland habitats by:

  • “providing the basis for estimates of waterbird levels ranging from local to global by supporting populations;
  • “monitoring changes in waterbird numbers and distribution by regular, standardised
  • “improving knowledge of little-known waterbird species and wetland sites;
  • “identifying and monitoring (networks of) sites that are important for waterbirds in general and, more specifi cally, identifying and monitoring sites that qualify as Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands;
  • “providing information on the conservation status of waterbird species and wetland sites, for use by international agreements and other nitiatives;
  • “increasing awareness of the importance of waterbirds and their wetland habitats at local, national and international levels.”

This programme is part of the International Waterbird Census, which includes the Western Palaearctic and Southwest Asia, and some countries in Africa and South America. These regions are not part of the Asian Waterbird Census strategy.

Asian Waterbird Census Strategy 2007-2015

14 November 2007

Oil Spills Devastate Birds on Two Continents

By James Ed. Ducey

On 7 November as the freighter Cosco Busan entered San Francisco Bay, it side-swiped a bridge support, and tore a gash in the ship’s hull, releasing 58,000 gallons of bunker oil.

Seabirds being effected by the oil in the ocean waters include Surf Scoters and Eared Grebes, according to Point Reyes Bird Observatory Conservation Science information. “Other species include Common Murres, Western Grebes, Clark's Grebes, Horned Grebes, Ruddy Ducks, Greater Scaup, Lesser Scaup, White-winged Scoters and Common Loons.”

The Oil Spill Response Team of PRBO is responsible for the logging and processing of birds at the San Francisco Bay Oiled Wildlife Care and Education Center in Cordelia, CA. Numerous people were calling to volunteer, the group reported, but the greatest need was for people to report the occurrence of oiled birds.

Oiled species currently reported by the Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge include “Rhinoceros Auklets, Western Grebes, Brown Pelicans, and Western Gulls. Most of the oiled birds have been identified as Common Murres.”

The Farallones National Marine Sanctuary is recognized as one of the most extraordinary and environmentally sensitive areas in the world.

As of Monday evening, Golden Gate Audubon reported handling “186 oiled birds, including 9 captured and 17 dead,” according to a report on the California birds forum. “Many of the birds remain frustratingly out of reach. The numbers of birds captured or recovered is expected to increase during the coming week.

As of Tuesday, November 13th, this number had increased to 715 live birds are in care at The San Francisco Bay Oiled Wildlife Care Center.

Several birders associated with the Audubon group conducted a survey of oiled birds. They “covered the south shore of Alameda, including Elsie Romer Wildlife Sanctuary, Crown Memorial State Beach, Crab Cove Marine Reserve, and parts of the former Alameda Naval Air Station. About 60 oiled birds were found, “including a few covered nearly from head to toe.”

Pictures documenting the impacted birds, show Western Grebes, Greater Scaup, Surf Scoter, Sanderling, Eared Grebe, Surf Scoter, Ring-billed Gull, and Black-bellied Plover. Other species noted to have been oiled were Horned Grebes, Great Blue Heron, Dunlin, Least Sandpiper, Mew Gull and Western Gulls, they reported on the California Bird forum.

Golden Gate Audubon listed several locales where volunteers were needed to locate and identify impacted birds.

On Saturday, November 10, Audubon's Richardson Bay Sanctuary, the largest marine reserve in San Francisco Bay, was struck by oil from the spill.

Northern Black Sea

The spill fuel oil into the Black Sea at Kerch Strait, occurred on 11 November.

Government estimates provided a figure of 1300 tons, with an estimate of 2000 tons from Greenpeace.

Pictures show birds coated in a black sludge.

“Birds seeking shelter on the shore near the center of the storm were covered in a treacly mixture of oil and seaweed — the first evidence of what one Russian official called an “environmental disaster,” according to news in the St. Petersburg Times.

Krasnodar Territory Governor Alexander Tkachev called the spill an ecological disaster at a meeting of the territorial administration, and as reported by Kommersant. “Thirty thousand birds have died and the number of fish that have died is uncountable,” he noted. “The damage is so great that it is hard to assess. It can be called an ecological catastrophe.” Tkachev said that one of the main causes of the catastrophe in the Strait of Kerch was the foolhardiness of the ships' captains, who “received storm warnings and hoped for luck.”

The main species reported to be affected are Great Cormorant, Common Coot, Great Crested Grebe and Black-necked Grebe,” according to a report by Birdlife International.

The group reports that “two Important Bird Areas (IBAs), nearby, the Kiziltash Bay and the Tamanski and Dinskiy Bays, are under threat. Both are designated primarily for migrating and wintering birds. Up to 50,000 migratory waterfowl and other birds are known to use the sites during migration. Among these are Dalmatian Pelican, listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List and White-tailed Eagle.”

On Tuesday, “scores of birds, weighed down by thick coatings of the fuel oil, hopped weakly along the shore or sat helplessly in the sand,” according to an Associated Press report in the Moscow Times. “Workers with pitchforks and shovels collected vast clumps of oil mixed with sand, seaweed and dead birds. “ The area is a bird migration route for those species flying from Siberia to the Black Sea, and this is the peak migration for red-throated and black-throated Siberian divers, according to the Irish Times.

So far, 50km of Russian coastline is affected by the oil spills.

There has been $3 million allocated to the cleanup process, according to a Russian news report.

Oil affects birds in several ways, according to the Point Reyes Bird Observatory:

  • “hypothermia- oil interferes with the waterproofing of their feathers and allows their skin to come in contact with the cold water.
  • “starvation-birds beach themselves to avoid the hypothermia and therefore can't feed at sea; or they preen (clean their feathers) so obsessively to try to remove the oil that they do not spend any time feeding.
  • “toxicity from ingesting oil during preening."

Web Sites

International Bird Rescue Research Center
Kill the Spill

13 November 2007

Holy Fowl Watching Birdfans‏

[Tibetan Monks at Oak Lake] James Ed. Ducey

While on an outing at Lincoln on a recent chilly Tuesday, my route went to Oak Lake Park.

Usual autumn fowl present included a bunch of Ring-billed Gulls and more Canada Geese.

The most interesting part of the visit to appreciate was an unexpected ceremony by a group of seven Buddist Monks, from the Drepung Loseling Monastery in Tibet.

The men were finishing a ceremony started earlier at the Lentz Center for Asian Culture. For several days the visitors had created a vividly colored mandala for peace, made of a multitude of tiny grains of sand.

Before coming to the lake, the closing ceremony at the center included chants, songs and music to mark the completion of the sand art masterpiece. The sand art was destroyed - in a slow, methodical manner - to convey the message that life is temporary, and how nothing is permanent. Some sand grains of the former mandala were given to people at the building ceremony.

According to the translator for the group, the remainder of the sand was thrown into the lake since water is part of a great cycle of continuity. The water of the lake flows into a stream, down the river and on to the great oceans. The sea-water transpires into the air to then fall to the earth as rain or snow.

At the lakeside, their guttural chants and glorious foreign song had a musical accompaniment using Tibetan horns.

Two-three gulls flew above, winging their way around this little bit of the lake during the brief ceremony.

The serene setting was enjoyed by a small group of solemn, human observors.

Other birds at the holy lake scene were the American Kestrel, Mallard and Northern Shoveler.

It was certainly a blessed place. [Tibetan monks at Oak lake Park]

11 November 2007

Projects Funded by WRDA to Benefit Bird Habitats

James Ed. Ducey

An override of the presidential veto on November 8th, enacted the Water Resources Development Act of 2007.

“In today's historic veto override, Congress has kept its promise to restore America's Everglades and made an historic national commitment to the protection of more of America's most sensitive and valuable ecosystems, including the Gulf Coast, the Mississippi River, and the Great Lakes," said April Gromnicki, Audubon's Director of Ecosystem Restoration. "If there is a cause that merits a historic vote such as this, it's fitting that the cause be to restore some of our most special places before they are lost forever." 

The Legislation provides $23 billion funding for navigation, flood protection and ecosystem restoration. There is a plethora of projects from Alaska to Florida, and throughout the United States given in the 180-page plus bill.

Ecosystem restoration is slated for the Everglades, Mississippi River, coastal Louisiana and the Great Lakes, and Río Oeste, along the Salt River in Arizona.

The House legislation - H.R. 1495 - lists provisions for 178 projects, with 43 aquatic ecosystem restoration projects identified.

Examples of restoration projects given include:

  • Clam Bayou and Dinkins Bayou, Sanibel Island, Florida
  • Napa River Salt Marsh Restoration, Napa, California
  • Hudson Raritan Estuary, Liberty State Park, New Jersey
  • Hocking River Basin, Monday Creek, Ohio
  • Lower Colorado River Basin

The bill has seven small projects for improvement of the quality of the environment.

Mitigation, recovery, and restoration will be funded for the Missouri river and tributaries in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming.

Passage of the legislation has been lauded by other environmental organizations.

“The passage of WRDA represents an important milestone in The Nature Conservancy’s efforts to protect and restore the Upper Mississippi River Basin,” said Michael Reuter, director of the Conservancy’s Great Rivers Partnership. “We applaud all of the senators and congressional representatives who recognized the benefits of this legislation – creating and enhancing habitat for native species, improving water quality, reducing the risk of flooding and increasing recreational opportunities.”

Most of these projects will be administered by the Army Corps of Engineers. Some projects will be carried out with local partners, which may provide additional funding.

Similar legislation was last enacted in 2000.

Water Resources Development Act

09 November 2007

Feather Atlas Useful for Identification of North American Birds

A unique resource for identification of flight feathers of North American birds is now available at the online Feather Atlas.

“The Feather Atlas is the first widely-available resource to provide species identification tools for detached feathers,” said Pepper Trail, the ornithologist with the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory, a division of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He is the coordinator for the atlas website project.

“Until the Feather Atlas, there was no widely-available image database of detached flight feathers of North American birds,” Trail said in an email interview. “These scans will be useful in terms of illustrating feather structure and function (compare, for example, the outer primaries of buteos, accipiters, and falcons), as well as documenting plumage variation."

“The primary intended use is for species identification, but there are many other possible uses, including by researchers (as a source for feather measurements), artists (to reference fine details of plumage when they lack access to specimens), and educators (to show examples of feather shape and appearance). There will likely be other uses for these scans that have not even been imagined."

Groups represented by the atlas thus far are hawks, eagles, vultures, falcons, pigeons and doves, cuckoos, owls, and woodpeckers, with 64 species currently illustrated.

Tail fathers of the Red-bellied Woodpecker. Image courtesy of the Feather Atlas.

“We began with raptors, with particular emphasis on the different plumages of Bald and Golden Eagles,” said Pepper Trail, a biologist in the Laboratory. “The feathers of birds of prey, including hawks, eagles, and owls, are the most commonly encountered by FWS agents, both in partial carcasses (for example, electrocuted bird remains) and in crafted items (such as feather fans). Flicker feathers are also frequently used in crafted items, which led us into the woodpeckers.”

For each species, examples of wing and tail feathers are shown on a background that provides a scale for referencing the size of each feather. Precise measurements – to the nearest millimeter – are also given in a data table found beneath each scan. “The measurements are an important additional resource for making identifications,” Trail said.

Further details for each image provide the bird’s sex, age and where it originated.

Also provided with the atlas is a glossary of terms used to describe parts of a feather, illustrated with annotated figures. Coming soon to the web site will be options to zoom in to view feathers in a greater detail, print an image or create a portable document file with the image.

Details on the legal issues related to feather possession are presented, including a link to the complete list of protected species. There is also information about special rules which are applicable to Native Americans, which often use bird material in tribal ceremonies.

The Forensics Laboratory created the atlas since it provides “identification resources to the field officers of the Office of Law Enforcement,” Trail said. “Much of our work at the laboratory involves making species identifications from partial remains, including loose feathers,” Trail said. “Therefore, we have both the expertise and the specimen reference collection needed to undertake this effort.

“Law enforcement personnel will find the scans useful in identifying flight feathers in crafted items and bird carcasses. Field biologists will be able to use the scans to identify feathers encountered during field work. For example, I am often asked to identify molted feathers picked up during field surveys, where the goal is to distinguish Great Gray versus Great Horned Owls or Northern Goshawk versus other raptors.

“The Feather Atlas marks an expansion of our identification resources onto a widely accessible web-based platform that will be useful not only to Fish and Wildlife Service agents, but to refuge officers, state game departments, researchers, and the general public.”

The laboratory already provides a variety of bird “Identification Notes” for use by agents and researchers.

The web site has already undergone a review by “various Fish and Wildlife Service personnel and museum-based ornithologists,” Trail said. “Their comments were very helpful in refining our search tools and in developing the information presented on the homepage. We are still working toward implementation of some of their suggestions, for example, making thumbnails of the scans available.”

The ultimate goal of the atlas is to present images of the flight feathers of all species of North American birds – a project that will take years.

Trail stated that the strategy is to scan as many members of a bird family as possible before adding that group to the atlas, thus allowing comparisons between similar species. As a result, he explained, “the availability of specimens influences which groups we work on. We are currently scanning the feathers of upland gamebirds (quail, grouse, and relatives) and nightjars. After that, we plan to begin work on waterfowl. And on an ongoing basis, we will add new species and scans to existing groups as additional specimens become available.”

Feathers scanned for the website are from specimens in the reference collection of the Forensics Laboratory, Mr. Trail said. “Almost all these are salvaged carcasses that have been donated by our wide network among wildlife rehabilitation centers, National Wildlife Refuges and other FWS offices, bird-banders, and state game departments. No birds are killed to provide specimens.”

The actual scanning is done by a Laboratory volunteer, Sue Polich, and the specimen preparation and website design are done by Laboratory staff when time is available, Trail said.

The website emphasizes that it is illegal to possess birds or parts of birds protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which covers almost all native North American species.

“This includes molted feathers and feathers that may have come from road- or window-kills,” Trail explained, noting that the Feather Atlas offers a legal way to study and appreciate the beauty of the feathers of protected native species: “Appreciate the images, but don’t collect feathers unless you have a permit to do so!”

Opportunities for close examination of feathers may be available at museums, zoos, and wildlife rehabilitation centers.

“Education about feathers can be done using the feathers of non-native birds such as Ring-necked Pheasant, Indian Peafowl, Rock Pigeon, European Starling and House Sparrow, Trail concluded. “The feathers of all these species can be legally possessed without permits.”

“Feathers represent a supreme combination of beauty and functionality, Trail said. “The variety of their patterns and shapes is an endless source of fascination, and I never tire of the challenge of making species identifications based on feathers alone. This project has required a sustained focus on the details of feather appearance that has been very rewarding. The response so far has suggested wide interest in this resource, which is certainly encouraging.”

National Forensics Laboratory Feather Atlas
National Forensics Lab bird “Identification Notes”

08 November 2007

Columbus Voyages Discover Birds in America

By James Ed. Ducey

There were four Columbus voyages to sea-side lands of American. After the initial exploration in 1492-1493, others soon followed in response to the original discoveries. The second voyage of 493-1496 discovered the Lesser Antilles and Cuba. There was a third exploration in 1497-1498, with the final voyage of first discovery from 1502-1504.

Christofforus de Columbo received government approval and funding for the first voyage of discovery. Official documents were issued from the king and queen to allow him to sail, expenses paid, for the new world of the west Indies. Articles of agreement were signed in April 1492.

[Illustration of Columbus]

Admiral Columbus set forth a few months later, on August 3rd. The sailing vessels are the now famous caravels Pinta and Nina, and the Santa Maria with their crews of sailing men.

By mid-September while floating along in the western Atlantic Ocean, there were birds being seen. Among the sea birds seen were the boat-swain bird, booby, petrels, and man-of-war bird. Terns and ducks were noted in the chronicles resulting from the brave men's voyages.

It was mid-October when land fall in the new world occurred, and the first sightings were made of new types pf wild birds.

Information from the voyages as summarized here, is based on an original translation of the journal narratives. The original spelling is retained.

Journal of the First Voyage - Discovery of the West Indies, 12 October 1492 - 15 January 1493

Friday, 12 October

"... I saw no animal of any kind in this island, except parrots. ..."

Saturday, 13 October

"... They brought skeins of spun cotton, and parrots, and darts, and other trifles that would be tedious to describe, ..."

Sunday, 21 October

'At ten o'clock I arrived here at the Cape of the Islet and anchored, ... Here are some great lagoons, and around them, on the banks, the verdure is marvellous; and round about there is a marvellous amount of woodland, the grass like in April in Andalusia, and the singing of the little birds such that it would seem that man would never wish to leave here; and the flocks of parrots obscured the sun, and big and little birds of all sorts, and so different from ours that it is marvellous. ..."

Sunday, 28 October

"... never beheld so fair a thing; trees all along the river, beautiful and green, and different from ours, with flowers and fruits each according to their kind, many birds and little birds which sing very sweetly. ..."

Monday, 29 October

"... There were dogs that never barked, wild birds tamed in their houses, ... large birds and small birds and the chirping of crickets, ..."

Saturday, 3 November

"... all he had seen was so beautiful that his eyes would never tire beholding so much beauty, and the songs of the birds large and small. ..."

Sunday, 4 November

"Presently at sunrise the Admiral got into the barge and went ashore to hunt the birds that he had seen the day before. ..."

Tuesday, 6 November

"... They saw many kinds of trees and plants and fragrant flowers; saw birds of many kinds different from those of Spain, except partridges and nightingales which sang; and geese, of which there were many; ... "

Saturday, 17 November

"... many birds he saw ... "

Tuesday, 27 November

"... As he went along it was a marvellous thing to see the trees and greenery and the very clear water, and the birds and the amenity, ... "

Friday, 7 December

"... He went a short distance into that country, which is all cultivated, and heard sing the nightingale and other songbirds like those of Castile. ... "

Thursday, 13 December

"... And because the Indians aboard had understood that the Admiral wanted a parrot, it seems that Indian who went with the Christians told them something of it, and so they brought parrots, and gave them as they wanted, without asking anything for them. ... "

Saturday, 22 December

"... After evening fell the lord gave them three very fat geese, ... "

Sunday, 23 December

"... Afterwards the king gave to each one some cotton cloth which the women wear, and parrots for the Admiral, and some pieces of gold. ... "

Sunday, 13 January

"... He had his face all stained with charcoal, although in parts they are wont to use different colors; he wore his hair very long and drawn together and fastened behind, and gathered into a little net of parrots' feathers; and he as naked as the others. ... "

The explorers returned to Europe in early March 1493, landing in Portugal.

Michele de Cuneo's Letter on the Second Voyage, 28 October 1495

[parrots illustration]

c. Fauna and Flora

"To continue, we shall now tell of the birds.

"First, going from the island of Ferro to the island of Guadaloupe, for six days almost constantly we saw in the air many hawks flying across. We also saw an infinite number of swallows, and that is why we thought we were near either to an island or a continent.

"There are in all the islands, as well as of the Caribs as of the Indians, where I have been, innumerable parrots of three kinds, viz., green all over and not very big, green spotted with red and not too big, and as big as chickens, spotted with green, red and black. Of the last I have eaten several times, their flesh tastes like that of the starling. There are also wild pigeons, some of them white-crested, which are delicious to eat. There are also innumerable swallows and sparrows and some little birds of the forest. ...

"d. The Indians

... the arrows of canes, ... and the feathers are taken from parrots' wings. ..."

Ferdinand Columbus's Account of the Return Passage, 1496

Sunday, 10 April

"... but before they touched land a muster of women came out of the bush, carrying bows, arrows and wearing plumes, apparently determined to defend the country. ... Among other things which they found in the houses were big parrots, honey, beeswax, iron which they used to make hatchets, and looms, like ours on which rugs are made, ...

The Third Voyage of Discovery, 1498-1500

Birds were not noted in America during this voyage, according to a review of the source document. The region visited included the northern tip of current South America and Hispaniola.

Ferdinand Columbus's Account of the Fourth Voyage

Ferdinand Columbus was the son of Christopher Columbus, and accompanied his father on the fourth voyage. A primary area of exploration was the western Caribbean, with a goal of discovering a passage to the Pacific Ocean and beyond.

Sunday morning, 14 August 1502

"... But, being pleased with what had been given them, above two hundred came next day to the same place, laden with several kinds of provisions such as native fowls (which are better than ours), geese, roasted fish, red and white beans like our kidney beans, and other things not differing from those of Hispaniola."

Columbus's Lettera Rarissima to the Sovereigns, 7 July 1503

e. Navigation and Miscellaneous Events

"There were many varieties of animals but they all die of the pip; many fowls of great size (having feathers like wool), lions, stags, does and birds. ..."

Localities of Bird Observations

These are the fifteen localities where birds were known to have been observed during the Columbus voyages. The designated names are based on names determined in the original narrative, and based on voyage maps, have been correlated to modern place names.

• Cabo de la Laguna - Bahama Islands
• Guadeloupe Island - Bahama Islands
• Guanahani - Bahama Islands
• Harbor of San Salvador - Cuba
• Isabela - Dominican Republic
• La Costa de las Orejas - Nicaragua
• Lamahich - Jamaica
• Puerto Baracoa - Cuba
• Puerto de la Concepcion - Haiti
• Puerto de la Mar de Sancto Thomas - Haiti
• Puerto Tanamo - Cuba
• Rio de Mares - Cuba
• Samana Bay - Dominican Republic
• Sierra del Cibao - Cuba
• Western Atlantic Ocean - West Indies

Species Analysis

There was a small, yet exquisite variety of species identified for the Columbus voyages. Some of the birds had a description sufficient to allow attribution to a particular species, while others can only be attributed to a broad category. And, based on an editorial interpretation given with the translated voyage narratives, this is the list:

• Arctic Tern
• Bird effigy
• Bird-motif garment
• Booby
• Cuban Parrot
• Dove
• Falcon
• Goose
• Magnificent Frigatebird
• Northern Mockingbird
• Parrot
• Perching birds
• Petrel
• Phalarope
• Pigeon
• Quail
• Sparrow
• Swallow
• Tern
• Tropicbird
• Unidentified birds
• Unidentified waterfowl
• Wattled Curassow
• West Indian Whistling-Duck
• White-crowned Pigeon

A more precise identification of some species, perhaps the quail for example, could perhaps be feasible if the records were studied in detail by those familiar with local avifauna in the regions visited by the Columbus voyages.

The specific bird observations from the Columbus voyages can be summarized as follows:

Cuban Parrot - Cabo de la Laguna - 10/21/1492
Perching birds - Cabo de la Laguna - 10/21/1492
Unidentified birds - Cabo de la Laguna - 10/21/1492
Unidentified birds - Harbor of San Salvador - 10/28/1492
Parrot - Rio de Mares - 10/29/1492
Unidentified birds - Rio de Mares - 11/3/1492
Unidentified birds - Rio de Mares - 11/4/1492
Quail - Sierra del Cibao - 11/6/1492
Northern Mockingbird - Sierra del Cibao - 11/6/1492
West Indian Whistling-Duck - Sierra del Cibao - 11/6/1492
Unidentified birds - Puerto Tanamo - 11/17/1492
Unidentified birds - Puerto Baracoa - 11/27/1492
Northern Mockingbird - Puerto de la Concepcion - 12/7/1492
Unidentified birds - Puerto de la Concepcion - 12/7/1492
Parrot - Puerto de la Concepcion - 12/13/1492
Unidentified birds - Puerto de la Concepcion - 12/13/1492
West Indian Whistling-Duck - Puerto de la Mar de Sancto Thomas - 12/22/1492
Tern - Western Atlantic Ocean - 9/14/1492
Tropicbird - Western Atlantic Ocean - 9/14/1492
Tropicbird - Western Atlantic Ocean - 9/17/1492
Petrel - Western Atlantic Ocean - 9/18/1492
Booby - Western Atlantic Ocean - 9/19/1492
Arctic Tern - Western Atlantic Ocean - 9/20/1492
Unidentified birds - Western Atlantic Ocean - 9/20/1492
Booby - Western Atlantic Ocean - 9/20/1492
Booby - Western Atlantic Ocean - 9/21/1492
Unidentified waterfowl - Western Atlantic Ocean - 9/22/1492
Petrel - Western Atlantic Ocean - 9/22/1492
Dove - Western Atlantic Ocean - 9/23/1492
Booby - Western Atlantic Ocean - 9/23/1492
Tern - Western Atlantic Ocean - 9/23/1492
Phalarope - Western Atlantic Ocean - 9/23/1492
Booby - Western Atlantic Ocean - 9/24/1492
Petrel - Western Atlantic Ocean - 9/24/1492
Tropicbird - Western Atlantic Ocean - 9/27/1492
Magnificent Frigatebird - Western Atlantic Ocean - 9/29/1492
Booby - Western Atlantic Ocean - 9/29/1492
Tropicbird - Western Atlantic Ocean - 9/30/1492
Booby - Western Atlantic Ocean - 9/30/1492
Tern - Western Atlantic Ocean - 10/2/1492
Petrel - Western Atlantic Ocean - 10/4/1492
Booby - Western Atlantic Ocean - 10/4/1492
Magnificent Frigatebird - Western Atlantic Ocean - 10/4/1492
Tern - Western Atlantic Ocean - 10/4/1492
Petrel - Western Atlantic Ocean - 10/5/1492
Unidentified birds - Western Atlantic Ocean - 10/7/1492
Tern - Western Atlantic Ocean - 10/8/1492
Unidentified waterfowl - Western Atlantic Ocean - 10/8/1492
Booby - Western Atlantic Ocean - 10/8/1492
Unidentified birds - Western Atlantic Ocean - 10/9/1492
Petrel - Western Atlantic Ocean - 10/11/1492
Cuban Parrot - Guanahani - 10/12/1492
Cuban Parrot - Guanahani - 10/13/1492
Parrot - Puerto de la Mar de Sancto Thomas - 12/23/1492
Bird effigy - Samana Bay - 1/13/1493
Booby - Western Atlantic Ocean - 1/17/1493
Magnificent Frigatebird - Western Atlantic Ocean - 1/18/1493
Booby - Western Atlantic Ocean - 1/19/1493
Tropicbird - Western Atlantic Ocean - 1/19/1493
Magnificent Frigatebird - Western Atlantic Ocean - 1/19/1493
Magnificent Frigatebird - Western Atlantic Ocean - 1/20/1493
Petrel - Western Atlantic Ocean - 1/20/1493
Unidentified birds - Western Atlantic Ocean - 1/20/1493
Tropicbird - Western Atlantic Ocean - 1/21/1493
Petrel - Western Atlantic Ocean - 1/21/1493
Unidentified birds - Western Atlantic Ocean - 1/21/1493
Tropicbird - Western Atlantic Ocean - 1/22/1493
Tropicbird - Western Atlantic Ocean - 1/28/1493
Petrel - Western Atlantic Ocean - 1/28/1493
Tropicbird - Western Atlantic Ocean - 1/30/1493
Tropicbird - Western Atlantic Ocean - 1/31/1493
Petrel - Western Atlantic Ocean - 1/31/1493
Falcon - Guadeloupe Island
Petrel - Guadeloupe Island
Parrot - Isabela
Pigeon - Isabela
Sparrow - Isabela
Swallow - Isabela
White-crowned Pigeon - Isabela
Cuban Parrot - Isabela
Parrot - Isabela
Bird-motif garment - Guadeloupe Island - 4/10/1496 - 1496
Parrot - Guadeloupe Island - 4/10/1496 - 1496
Unidentified birds - La Costa de las Orejas - 8/14/1502
Goose - La Costa de las Orejas - 8/14/1502
Wattled Curassow - Lamahich - - 1503
Unidentified birds - Lamahich - - 1503


This review of bird sightings hardly touches on the expansive history associated with the voyages. The best presentation of the events is given by the many source documents published for the explorations during the four voyages of Christopher Columbus and his hearty companions.

06 November 2007

Winter Forecast for Northern Species Excites Many Bird Watchers

By James Ed. Ducey

An annual report of the expected movement of typical northern species of birds is causing excitement among many bird watchers.

Due to a "very poor seed crop" in portions of Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba, and other related influences, several bird species are heading elsewhere to find food, according to the report prepared by Ron Pittaway, a field ornithologist with the Ontario Field Ornithologists. The theme for the present winter forecast is "finches going in three directions."

[Evening Grosbeak, image courtesy of Wikipedia]

The report for this winter discusses the expected movement - irruptions - of the Pine Grosbeak, Purple Finch, crossbills, redpolls, Pine Siskin and Evening Grosbeak as they move about during the late autumn and winter months in search of a reliable source of food.

Occurrence of some of these birds is already being regularly reported in online bird forums for many locales in the United States.

Red-breasted Nuthatches are also being commonly being reported southward of Canada by bird watchers, and are being observed in places where they may not have been typically seen in previous winter seasons.

Sightings of these "expected" species - many at bird feeders - is thrilling to many people that watch wild birds, as indicated by the effusive remarks posted on numerous bird forums.

Pittaway's first winter finch forecast was prepared in 1999, when "spies" provided enough details to discuss just a few species.

For the next winter, a couple of short missives comprised the report, with only one contributor recognized. With his continued focus on this topic through the subsequent years, and a better understanding of the influences on winter bird distribution, the details given in the report have grown to include a discussion of Great Gray Owls, Northern Hawk Owls and Boreal Owls in the 2007-2008 report. Numerous people were recognized for their valuable contributions, including bird watchers, and staff of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. The forecast even went through a review process before being posted on the website of the Ontario Field Ornithologists.

In an email interview, Pittaway, of Minden Ontario, discussed his finch forecast, which is typically released in in September to the Ontbirds and Birdchat listservs and available on the Ontario Field Ornithologists website.

Why have you done these reports since 1999? What got you started?

"The internet stimulated annual winter finch forecasts. It's so immediate and far reaching. Also, birders reported finches and then said retroactively that 'this should be a good winter for this species.' Since finch movements and abundance are driven by seed crops formed well in advance of irruptions, I figured that a forecast based on seed crops would interest birders. Some were skeptical at first but now there is a much greater confidence in reliability of the forecasts. This year inquiries about the forecast began in June. There's a lot of interest in neighboring states (Ontario borders on eight states) and well beyond. The forecast is aimed at Ontario, but often applies to broader areas as in 2006-7 and this winter."

What do you find is the biggest difference from year to year?

"Every year differs to some degree because of the varying abundance and extent of seed supplies across North America. This year's theme was finches going in three directions: east, west, south. This year shows that many finches such as crossbills often don't only go north to south."

How do evaluators determine the difference in seed sources needed by the species you discuss?

"I ask contacts to rate seed crops for each major conifer species and white birch as bumper, excellent, very good, good, fair or poor. Most of my contacts are foresters, biologists, tree seed specialists, field naturalists and birders. Many of these contacts also report the finches present in their areas. I often follow-up with phone calls."

[Boreal Owl, image courtesy of Wikipedia]

Do you think your forecasts have any role in bird management or conservation?

Not directly that I'm aware of. However, the educational value to resource planners and managers may have unforeseen benefits. Finches demonstrate the importance of healthy forests throughout North America. As a sidebar, wild bird stores that sell seeds always find forecasts informative and I get mixed reactions. They prefer years such as this when Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Grosbeaks, siskins and redpolls irrupt southward. Sales go up. Last year's bumper seed crop which held finches in the northern forests had seed stores hoping the forecast would be wrong.

What do you think of the response to your forecast?

"Most responses to the forecast are favorable. I've been lucky. Usually authors get feedback only when they are wrong. Last year a birder challenged me about how long it takes for white pine cones to mature. He said three years so I referred him to the scientific literature showing that it's a two-year pine. However, I don't mind critics such as the aforementioned person because I learn so much from others. Birders are welcome to use information from the forecast."

Would you think there are any climate changes that are playing a role in the changes noted by your reports?

"I suspect that climate change is affecting boreal finches. The number of forest fires is increasing. Unusual weather events, such as unseasonable freezes during pollination and flowering, and droughts retarding seed development in summer, are likely effects of climate change. Also, very warm weather in fall causes some conifers such as white pine and white spruce to release seeds early reducing supplies for finches during the winter."

Do forest conservation initiatives which protect habitats, have any role in winter distribution in your area?

"The widespread planting of pines and spruces in southern Ontario and elsewhere often attract finches in winter. Selective cutting of forests in central Ontario has greatly reduced the regeneration of white birch, which is important to redpolls in winter. Most white birches in central Ontario are over 60 years old. This short-lived tree needs full sunlight to start growing. Eastern hemlock is important to Type 3 Red Crossbills but is not regenerating in central Ontario. The causes are a large deer population eating the seedlings and probably increased drought linked to climate change."

What is you background that got you interested in doing this forecast?

"I grew up in a rural town in southern Quebec near Ottawa during the 1950s and 60s. Like most birders the nomadic habits of boreal finches interested me. I was also a tree watcher and the two interests go together well. At college and university, I majored in forestry and environmental studies. During the 1970s I was a park naturalist in Algonquin Provincial Park (Ontario) where my interest in winter finches increased. From 1981 to retirement in 2003, I worked for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources at the Leslie M. Frost Natural Resources Centre in central Ontario with biologists, foresters, geologists and resource managers. The Frost Centre also did in-service training for natural resources and parks staff from across the province. At the Frost Centre and during travels across the province I made many contacts that I now draw upon for finch forests."

What enjoyment do you get out of doing the forecast?

"Nature's mysteries intrigue me. Learning from others also provides a lot of gratification. Mostly I'm pleased that birders look forward to the yearly forecasts. They're fun to do."

Would you like to say anything regarding the value of contributors and the information they provide?

"Former colleagues in the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources are among the best biologists and forest ecologists in the province. My good friend and top birder Ron Tozer of Algonquin Park and I have discussed winter finches for more than 35 years. We were co-editors of the journal Ontario Birds for 16 years. He reviews a draft of my annual finch forecasts."

Any other comments?

"In recent years other birders have started forecasting in other provinces and in New York, the New England States, Minnesota and elsewhere. I'm pleased about that. Perhaps it will develop into forecasts for larger geographical areas and eventually all of North America."

Winter Finch Forecast

04 November 2007

Bird Reserve of Soata Province Protects Endangered and Endemic Birds

James Ed. Ducey

The newly established Soata Reserve conserves habitat for endangered and endemic species of Columbia, and other migratory bird species, according to the Bird Group of Soata.

Members of the group - Alejandro Hernandez, Oswaldo Cortes, Sandra Alarcon, Daira Ximena Villagran, Jose Gil and Giovanni Chaves - have conducted surveys and research in the dry valleys and premontane forests of the Soata Province for several years, Cortes said.

Chestnut Bellied Hummingbird. Pictures courtesy of the Soata Bird Group.

The initial reserve, comprising 700 hectares, was based on the occurrence of the Chestnut-bellied Hummingbird and Niceforos Wren in the region around Soata, Boyaca department, Cortes said. This region is in central Columbia.

Findings of their reserach were recently published in a report titled: “Reserve Birds Of Soata - Saving the Chestnut Bellied Hummingbird (Amazilia castaneiventris), Niceforos Wren (Thryothorus nicefori) and Mountain Grackle (Macroagelaius subalaris).”

The report summarized finding for two of the most notable species.

Chestnut Bellied Hummingbird: “…inhabits promontane forest occuring principally between 2400 and 1800” meters. There was “evidence that the species should not be rare due to a specialised diet and the most frequently used, Yatago are widely distributed in the birds’ range. It is likely that flowering patterns of these and other species are responsible for the seasonal movement of the hummingbird; this is supported by the fact that most records of the species from Soata occur after May when flowering peaks in the area.”

“This species is critically endangered because it has an extremely small known range in which suitable habitat is severely fragmented and continuing to decline,” according to the species factsheet at Birdlife International. The estimated population was given as less than 100 birds.

Niceforos Wren.

Niceforos Wren: “The highest altitudinal record was at 2000 m in vereda La Costa (Soata), and the lowest altitudinal record was at 1800 m. The largest group recorded was 20 birds recorded in a river forest in madre de agua (Trichanthera gigantean) and Manila tamarind or Monkeypod (Pithecellobium dulce) trees. Niceforos Wrens were mainly recorded singing in the morning.”

Other bird species found in oak forests of the Soata Reserve were the Mountain Grackle, Rusty Faced Parrot (Hapalopsittaca amazonina), Yellow flamed Parakeet (Pyrrhura calliptera) and Black Inca (Coeligena prunellei).

“The immediate need for the protection of these bird populations is to establish some form of reserve around known foraging areas and areas of mature forest,” Cortes said. “This does not have to take the form of Nature Reserve, but may involve identifying species protection areas. This would help assure that certain activities, such as wood burning, felling of trees over 20 meters tall, and other activities such as housing development could not take place in these areas. Any development would be carried out in accordance with ecologically sensitive guidelines.”

Also, to assist in habitat conservation, Cortes said, “no non-native plants should be introduced to gardens, native trees should not be cut down, and that stands of trees must be planted along roadsides to soften the habitat damage. Use of pesticide chemicals should be banned or strictly controlled.”

Legal protection is another important focus of the Bird Group of Soata.

“As has proved useful in the Soata” Cortes said in an email, “the introduction of legal protection of the Chestnut Bellied Hummingbird, Niceforos Wrens, Mountain Grackle, Rusty Faced Parrot would allow criminal charges to be brought against anyone proven to intentionally or recklessly disturb or harm any hummingbirds, whether in the roost or foraging.”

Although we don't have the facilities of other reserves in our country,” Cortes said, “this is one step for the conservation and research of our bird heritage.”

Members of the Soata Bird Group.

The Bird Group “would like to thank several individuals and organizations who provided advice, support, resources, logistical help and encouragement throughout the period of this project. These include important contribution by Neotropical Bird Club, Corporacion Ocotea, Fundacion Quincha, The Birdfair/RSPB Research Fund for Endangered Birds, American Bird Conservancy, Birdes Exchangers, Fundacion Colibri y Fundacion Proaves which made possible field research and information gathering. Special thanks to family Sanabria and Marquez and all volunteers for their hard work in the field. The Sanabria Family, gave permission to work on their property and Alcaldia Municipal de Soata, for their genuine interest in the protection of the species which lead them to support this study.”

01 November 2007

Release Program for Falcon Showing Early Signs of Success

[Aplomado Falcon fledglings at Armendaris Ranch]

Fledgling Aplomado Falcons at the Armendaris Ranch. These are the first falcons successfully raised in New Mexico in several decades. Copyrighted photo courtesy of Mark Lockwood, and used with permission.

James Ed. Ducey

After just two seasons, the release of Aplomado Falcons into New Mexico is already showing signs of success.

“Two birds released in 2006 formed a pair and successfully fledged two chicks” this year at the Armendaris Ranch, said Mike Phillips, director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund. “This is the first time that falcons less than a year old have been known to raise young.”

Successful nesting by the pair of falcons was the highlight of the season, Phillips said. “It speaks well to the procedures of the project, and to the ability of the land to provide what is needed for the birds to survive.”

Fifty of Aplomado Falcons have been released in the region during 2007 and 2006. Twenty-eight were released from two different hack sites on the Armendaris Ranch, owned by Ted Turner, and 22 on the adjacent White Sands Missile Range, state of Utah and Bureau of Land Management lands.

The released falcons originate at the breeding facilities of the Peregrine Fund in Idaho, and are designated as an “experimental, non-essential population” not protected by the Endangered Species Act. The Fish and Wildlife Service and White Sands Missile Range are also partners in the project.

“An aggressive food provisioning program” was used to help the falcons survive during their release,” Phillips said. Supplemental food was provided for an additional seven months, until early spring, which is a longer period of time than is normally done when hacking raptors.

The introduced birds are given leg bands for identification purposes. The freed birds disperse, but 6-8-10 birds may be seen regularly around the Armendaris, Phillips said.

There have been no banded falcons reported by bird watchers in the region.

A habitat improvement grant of $7,728 provided to the TESF by the Fish and Wildlife Service Private Stewardship Grants Program, will fund the installation of nesting structures and an evaluation of their use through 2009. The artificial nest structures will be installed during the coming winter months, Phillips said.

The two sub-adult birds that successfully fledged young, built their nest on the cross bar of a high voltage transmission line.

The grant called for placement of 20 nest structures, but this is being reevaluated since an alternate design is being considered, Phillips said. “Mobile nest structures - although more expensive to build - would allow a better response to bird movement” and could be placed at sites preferred by the falcon pairs. A permanent nest platform could then replace the temporary structure.

The biggest question of the reintroduction program is how the released raptors will settle into the landscape, Phillips said. One big question is whether there is a sufficient prey base in this area of New Mexico.

The breeding success this year may indicate this raptor may be “far more tolerant of land use practices than people may realize,” he said. This may improve the chances to eventually establish a self-sustaining population in this portion of its historic range, the primary goal of this project.

[Aplomado Falcon at Armendaris Ranch]

Aplomado Falcon at the Armendaris Ranch. Copyrighted photo courtesy of Pat Obrien and used with permission.

“The restoration creates an opportunity for the falcons to succeed or fail on their own,” Phillips said. “If food is available, recovery is eminently possible.”

“Team Turner will continue its efforts during the next few years,” Phillips added. “If we get in a groove, we will keep doing more of the same. Our goal is to improve the conservation status of the Aplomado Falcon.”

About 100 birds are expected to be released in the region during a five-ten year period.

“We are years away from saying a population is in place,” Phillips said. After five years, a report of reintroduction efforts and results will be prepared for study and scientific evaluation by project participants.

Phillips said the project is ahead of schedule and under budget.

The focus on birds in peril such as the Aplomado Falcon fits well with the management goal at Turner Ranches properties to ensure survival of native species, he said.

The Northern Aplomado Falcon subspecies was classified in 1986 as an endangered species in the Texas portion of its range in the United States.

“Between 1986 and 1994, 58 nestlings were fledged for release by The Peregrine Fund at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Texas,” according to FWS information. The first successful nesting occurred in 1995.

“Aplomado Falcons once were widespread in the American Southwest, from southern Texas to eastern Arizona. By the 1950s their range was restricted to a few areas in Mexico, most likely due to the combined effects of habitat changes, pesticides, and human persecution,” according to information at The Peregrine Fund website.

- - - - -

Reintroduction of the Aplomado Falcon is one of a score of conservation projects being carried out on ranches owned by Turner. The management strategy for all of the properties is to: “Manage the land in an economically sustainable and ecologically sensitive manner while promoting the conservation of native species.” Turner currently owns about two million acres, mostly in North America.

The 358,643-acre Armendaris ranch, in Sierra County, New Mexico, was bought in 1994, and “lies in south central New Mexico and contains some of the most pristine Chihuahuan desert grassland in the Southwest,” according to the Turner website. “Other features include desert scrub and riparian habitats along the Rio Grande and the Fra Cristobal Mountains.” Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is at the northern end of the ranch.

Populations of the Scaled Quail have been studied by researchers from Texas A&M University.

Other research projects in progress or completed on the ranch include radio collared sheep, cougars, bobcats, kit foxes, bison plus studies on prairie dogs, kangroo rats, willow flycatchers, grassland response to fire, livestock grazing, antelope population response to climate, according to Tom Waddell, ranch manager.

The fourth largest bat cave in North America, used by the Mexican Free-tailed bat, is present on the ranch.

The southwestern Willow Flycatcher - listed as endangered in the Southwest - and Yellow-billed Cuckoo - a species of local concern - occur at riverine habitats at the Armendaris.

Turner Enterprises Inc.

Migratory Bird Habitat Would be Threatened by Utah Water Project

By James Ed. Ducey

A globally important bird area at the Great Salt Lake would be impacted by development of water resources provided by the Bear River. Plans call for water diversions that would reduce the flow of freshwater into habitats essential for a large variety and number of waterbirds.

River flows currently nourish about 400,000 acres of diverse wetland habitats at the river's delta at the Great Salt Lake.

The largest freshwater component of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem is at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, a tract of 74,000 acres established in 1928 as a federal reserve at the delta where the river enters the Great Salt Lake.

Counts by refuge staff in recent months document the extent of birds using refuge wetlands:

• 25 Oct - 105,000 waterfowl including 480 Tundra Swan.
• 18 Oct - 63,000 waterfowl including nearly 16,000 Northern Pintail.
• 2 Oct - 67,000 waterbirds, with nearly 15,000 Ruddy Duck.
• 31 Aug - 17,591 American Avocet.
• 9 Aug - 57,639 American Avocet, 29,274 American Coot, 32374 Black-necked Stilt, 20,174 Dowitcher, 14,280 Marbled Godwit, and 46,141 White-faced Ibis; plus a multitude of waterfowl.
• 19 Jul - record count of 369 red-necked phalarope; also 23,488 White-faced Ibis, 23,985 American Avocet and numerous other shorebirds.

The value of refuge habitats for wild birds has meant its designation as an Important Birding Area by the National Audubon Society.

"Bear River Bay provides habitat for a large number of the world's total population of specific bird species including: White-faced Ibis, Marbled Godwit, American White Pelican, Tundra Swan, American Avocet, Wilson's Phalarope, California Gull, Cinnamon Teal, Western Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, Gadwall, Black-necked Stilt, Green-winged Teal, Western Grebe, Forster's Tern, Franklin's Gull, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, and Redhead," according to the important bird area summary prepared by the society.

Other details indicate the value of the refuge and adjacent Great Salt Lake for migratory birds, according to the refuge website:

  • "breeding colonies of white-faced ibis contain as many as 18,000 birds.
  • "Up to 10,000 American avocets breed annually.
  • "One of North America's three largest American white pelican breeding colonies, containing in excess of 50,000 birds, is found on Gunnison Island in Great Salt Lake.
  • "The Great Salt Lake boasts the largest fall staging concentration of Wilson's phalaropes in the world, at approximately 500,000 birds. Red-necked phalaropes number nearly 100,000.
  • "The Great Salt Lake area hosts greater than 50 percent of the continental breeding population of snowy plovers.
  • "The Great Salt Lake area hosts 26 percent of the global population of marbled godwits during migration.
  • "Bear River Refuge may attract over 65,000 black-necked stilts in the fall, more than anywhere else in the country."

"An environmental analysis reveals Bear River development would reduce the average annual outflow of the Bear by 18 percent," according to information provided by the Utah Rivers Council website. "In a low water year, the diversions would take as much as 70 percent of the river's flow. They will further degrade the already impaired waters of the Bear River, and drastically change the levels, water temperature, and salinity of the Great Salt Lake."

The "expected water level reduction in the Bear River Bay area would be approximately 6 to 12 inches," said Steve Hicks, manager of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. "Due to the shallow nature of the Bear River Bay area, I would expect that water level drop to dry up thousands of acres of lake. The Bear River Bay is heavily used by shorebirds and waterfowl. Reducing the wet area available would force these bird populations into the remaining wet areas such as Bear River Refuge, and the Bear River Club marshes. Living space would be at a premium for the birds. In concentration, birds become stressed and disease outbreaks become more common. Existing food resources would also be more heavily utilized. It is quite probable that bird populations would respond downward."

Bear River basin (Map courtesy of the Utah Division of Water Resources, Bear River Development Report, August 2005).

From its source in the Uinta Mountains, the river's watershed is within Wyoming, Idaho and Utah, and the Bear River flows nearly 500 miles until it empties into the Great Salt Lake at Bear River Bay, southwest of Brigham City, Utah River.

The average annual flow of the Bear River into the Great Salt Lake is about 1.2 million acre-feet, according to figures in the Division of Water Resources report. An estimated 250,000 acre-feet of Bear River water would be developed.

In 1999, the Bear River was listed as one of the ten most endangered rivers in North America by the national organization, American Rivers. The threats given were sprawl at Salt Lake City (an hours drive south from the Bear River refuge, water withdrawals and a proposed dam. Population growth is an additional threat, causing an increased demand for fresh water in the arid region.

The water available from Bear River runoff is already reduced in some years due to dryer conditions in the region that result in a reduced inflow of fresh water at the refuge.

"The water supply forecast for 2007 is for 'much below average' runoff in the Bear River basin which means less than 70% of normal" flows, according to the refuge's 2007 habitat management plan.

In 2006, the snow pack was above average. Previously five straight years of drought impacted flows, according to a report in the Deseret News.

The water in the Bear River is a target for water development.

The Bear River project is the result of passage of the Bear River Development Act in 1991 by the Utah legislature. The proposed project includes storage reservoirs, diversions and associated transportation facilities.

The Act directs the Division to develop the waters of the Bear River and its tributaries, according to a report prepared by the Utah Division of Water Resources. "The Division is to plan, construct, own and operate reservoirs and facilities on the river as authorized and funded by the legislature, and to market the developed water."

"The estimated cost to deliver the full allocation of Bear River Water today to the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District and the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District is about $700 million with half the burden falling on the State to develop the water and deliver it to Willard Bay and half on the water districts to treat the water and deliver it to their wholesale agencies," according to project documents.

The Utah Rivers Council says there are alternative to diverting flows of the Bear River. "Water conservation and agricultural water transfers can eliminate the need for Bear River dams and diversions at a cost $4,000/acre-foot less than current proposals," according to information on the council website.

"It seems like a no-brainer that drying up the lake can't be good for the bird populations that use the Great Salt Lake ecosystem," Hicks said. "Someday it will come down to water for humans or birds. Today is the day to start trying to find some middle ground so that both may survive in this arid land."

Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge
Utah Rivers Council

Advanced Thermal Camera Useful for Habitat Evaluation

By James Ed. Ducey

The use of an advanced thermal imaging camera could potentially provide clues to understanding habitats used by wild birds in North America.

Test images taken with the camera by the Center for Advanced Land Management Information Technologies (CALMIT), are now being evaluated to allow precise calibration of the camera, said Sunil Narumalani, a remote sensing and geographic information specialist. "This is an essential step to make comparisons in the features shown by an image, and we are real close to getting technical problems resolved."

The unique environment of the Sand Hills is one particular area of interest.

"The region has a geology and geomorphological history different from any other environment in North America," Narumalani explained.

CALMIT has a long history of remote sensing studies of wetlands in the Sandhills region, and has been deeply involved in the current Biocomplexity Study - notably at the Barta Brothers Ranch near Rose - being conducted by a number of researchers from the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Groundwater flow-through and plant canopies of wetlands in the Crescent Lake NWR area of Garden county, alkali lakes in Sheridan County and wet meadows at the Gudmundsen Sandhills Laboratory near Whitman are among the variety of land features which have been initially captured in camera imagery. Features of the western Platte River have also been taken for preliminary analysis.

Actual research projects are pending, Narumalani said. "Specific projects depend on available funding, and having adequate staff to analyze imagery in order to convert data to something useful. One particular focus is on using remote sensing for habitat analysis and species conservation," he said, referring to the previously done GAP program completed by CALMIT.

Bird-related projects already done using remote sensing techniques have been in cooperation with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and the National Park Service.

"Images provided by remote sensing cameras are extremely useful to understand land cover," Narumalani said. Detailed analysis of still images can readily reveal the extent of lakes, marshes and wet meadows, the degree of canopy cover by tree types, and the actual extent of particular plants. The fine image resolution provided by the thermal camera can be useful to analyzing invasive species such as salt cedar or Russian olive along the Republican and Platte rivers, he said.

"We can make repeat visits to the same area to create an archive of images for comparison of features at different times," Narumalani said. "Image analysis can indicate changes over time, and may be useful in helping to understand shifting conditions due changes in the climate."

Images are best captured at pre-dawn when there is the greatest contrast between ground features, Narumalani said. "One project we may undertake is a study of waterfalls and spring seeps along the Niobrara River. These features may be captured best during winter, when there is a reduced tree canopy. Boiling springs along the Dismal River are also of interest."

CALMIT has carried out remote sensing projects in 30 states, including South Carolina, Colorado and Texas. Fewer studies have been done outside the U.S.A.

The ThermaCAM-SC640 is similar to a digital video camera, providing a streaming video of a particular locale or landscape. CALMIT plans to extract individual images from the video recorded, for independent analysis. The camera is sensitive to 10ths of a degree Fahrenheit, and has a spatial resolution of one meter.

Images are typically taken from a height of 2-5,000 feet above ground from a Piper Saratoga aircraft operated by CALMIT. A lower flight level provides greater detail.

"During the coming weeks, examples of imagery from the camera video will be converted into still images," Narumalani said. "An analysis of these images can provide further understanding of land features essential to the conservation of landscape features and inhabitants."