22 December 2010

Aerial Photographs of Summer Water Conditions on Missouri River

Conditions associated with the above normal flows of water along the Missouri River during the past summer, are vividly shown in a series of aerial photographs. The images have been complied in a report titled "Ecological Sustainability Through Floodplain Connectivity," with Gene Zuerlein, a fisheries biologist with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, given as author.

The numerous photographs taken July 9th, 2010, show the extensive areas of water in the Missouri River floodway from the confluence of the Platte River, down to the Rulo vicinity. The report includes labels identifying local landmarks, which is essential in determining the location along the river channel.

"The photos were taken to assess current conditions of the Missouri River and were taken a few days after the river had peaked, "Zuerlein said. "We also wanted to see how some of the mitigations sites we manage looked after a flood. Flooding is one of those important processes mother nature uses to create habitat and redistribute needed nutrients on the floodplain."

Water is spread across the floodplain - to one degree or another - along the entire stretch of the river photographed, which includes portions of Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri.

The amount of water is astounding!

The first image shows the flooding at the LaPlatte Bottoms, just north of the Platte River confluence, indicating the summer extent of the wetlands at this site. It is interesting to note in a subsequent image, that there is only a small area of water apparent at the Oreapolis site, which is meant to mitigate for filling at the LaPlatte Site. This indicates that the tract is not as hydrologically connected, via surface water flow, to the Platte River, thus lessening the potential for a greater occurrence of wetlands and water storage during high water events.

Many of the areas with the most water present are state wildlife areas such as Schilling WMA, and the water at the new section of this tract on its south side, is well illustrated.

Many of the mitigation sites are also shown as holding water, including notably, Hamburg Bend, Langdon Bend, Aspinwall Bend, Indian Cave / Hemmies Bend and numerous other places.

Missouri River floodway, east of Rulo, Nebraska. Missouri is on the right side of the image.

The images were taken by Eric Fowler, associated with the NGPC's Nebraskaland magazine.

Water flows in the Missouri River are expected to soon return to "normal" levels, according to a representative of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Historic Perspectives

"Gerald Mestl and I have applied the Erodible River Concept on the 244 miles bordering Nebraska," Zuerlein said. "Basically we assessed the corridor of the Missouri River during three different timeframes and calculated how much space the river needs to be healthy like it used to be. When the MR was channelized, 522,000 acres of habitat were taken from it without fully understanding the ecological impact it would have.

"Historically, the river meandered across the floodplain, creating and taking away riverine habitat.

"The river was over engineered and put in a straight jacket and the flow regime changed to accomodate navigation. Congress passed legislation recently mandating that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (collaborating with partners and cooperators) put together an ecosystem recovery program which is currently underway.

"The Flood of 1993 also looked much like the flood of 2010. Taxpayers spent $13-16 billion bailing people out in 1993." A Presidental Report commonly called the Galloway Report" has "the particulars. With the river in its present state, its capacity to store floodwaters has been dramatically affected, consequently the stage of the river goes up when high flows are experienced.

"We need a healthier river for the future and hopefully one which will contribute a lot of ecosystem goods and services to mankind," Zuerlein said.

20 December 2010

Regional Paper Without Environmental Reporter

The largest newspaper in Nebraska no longer has a full-time reporter responsible for writing about environmental topics.

Upon learning this and inquiring further, and during a couple of discussions with representatives of the Omaha World-Herald in recent days, this situation has become readily apparent.

If someone wants to suggest a story related to the environment, they can contact an editor, as other reporters might prepare items on environmental topics, the news editor indicated. He did not provide any comment suitable to explain the lack of a reporter focused on this subject.

The publisher of the Omaha World-Herald, also did not provide a comment when asked about this situation.

The management staff have obviously decided that other subjects deserve greater attention.


* There are multiple food writers, as conveyed in an issue of a paper a few days ago suggesting readers go online to discuss things;
* The paper has a blog and multiple contributors about being a mom;
* There are two columnists for the news section, one for the living section and one for sports;
* There is a reporter whom writes only about weather;
* From reviewing the sport section bylines, there are at least three writers whose only subject is Big Red sports, and at least another ten sports writers.

One possible reason for this situation, is that there is no reader interest. This is a paradox, since how can readers be interested when there is no reporting on the subject?

Also, obviously, the well-known problems of being successful in publishing a newspaper have been reported far and wide, and the same issues apply as well at the Omaha World-Herald, where numerous reporters and other staff have been "let go" recently.

Having numerous other reporters assigned to a particular "beat," and none to the environment or sustainability is a situation which shows an obvious decline in the Omaha World-Herald being a "paper for the people" and "a voice promoting conservation."

Looking back, the halycon days were when Fred Thomas was always on the scene, interested in pertinent environmental topics, and doing stories and his ever-special Sunday column. There was lots to express, and he did a wonderful job.

The Omaha newspaper is but a shadow of what it was at its peak, and the lack of an environmental reporter, and the dearth of news nearly each day, show it has descended into something so much less that with it formerly was.

18 December 2010

Public Comment Sought Regarding Communication Towers

Public input is currently being sought by the Federal Communications Commission in regards to its oversight role of communication towers.

The federal agency is conducting a programmatic environmental assessment (PEA) of its Antenna Structure Registration program, under obligations required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Facets of the PEA are:

1) NEPA compliance for proposed tower registrations.
2) Effects of communications towers on migratory birds.

The FCC will do a preliminary evaluation of environmental impacts of communication towers, and determine whether a more extensive evaluation - a programmatic environmental impact statement - may be required.

Two public meetings were held: on December 13 at Chula Vista, California and December 15, at Tampa Florida.

A public meeting was also held December 6, at the FCC building in Washington, D.C., which was broadcast live on the internet.

Public comments must be presented by January 14, 2011, and can be submitted online.

The FCC regulates towers through licensing requirements, where every tower built must undergo a federal review.

Addressing Bird Deaths at Communications Towers

The programmatic environmental assessment on the take of migratory birds by communication towers in the Gulf Coast area now being undertaken by the Federal Communications Commission is a court-ordered action, based upon a lawsuit won on appeal by the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) and others, against the FCC.

The focus is the impact of communication towers on migratory birds. The FCC regulates communication tower frequencies through licensing requirements.

In recent years, ABC, National Audubon Society, the Ornithological Council, and other groups concerned with bird mortality at communication towers, have worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine measures to reduce "take" of protected migratory birds, now numbering 1,007 different species. A conservatively estimated 4-5 million birds are killed each year due to collisions with towers in the United States, though the actual extent is not known and could be much higher. Until a cumulative impacts analysis is conducted nationwide, the more "true" level of take cannot be determined.

The unpermitted "take" of a migratory bird, such as by incidental or accidental means including tower collision, is a potential criminal violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, as amended. MBTA is a strict liability statute where proof of intent is not required. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act also affords protection to both Bald and Golden Eagles. It, too, is a strict liability statute. Listed birds and other species are also protected by the Endangered Species Act.

Executive Order 13186, issued in January 2001, also requires that federal agencies protect migratory birds, and must develop and implement a memorandum of understanding with the USFWS that will "promote the conservation of migratory bird populations."

Dr. Albert M. Manville, a wildlife biologist in the Branch of Bird Conservation, Division of Migratory Bird Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has been actively working on the bird strikes issue for many years. Pertinent examples of his involvement include:

  1. Instrumental in establishing the Communication Tower Working Group in 1999 - which he chairs on behalf of the Service - to gather information pertinent to the subject;
  2. Helped develop USFWS communication tower guidelines in 2000;
  3. Provided a lengthy evaluation to the FCC of tools, approaches and changes needed to make communication towers more bird-friendly based on FCC proposed rulemaking in 2007;
  4. Published several papers on avian-communication tower collision and radiation issues; and
  5. Prepared a briefing paper in April 2009, on the need for research into the cumulative impacts of communication towers on migratory birds.

These efforts are intended to reduce the impacts which an increasing number of communication towers have on hundreds of species of migratory birds.

Towers are known dangers, depending upon their height, location, structure (e.g., monopole, lattice, or guyed -- including how many spans of guy wires are present), and the type of lighting used, as defined and required by Federal Aviation Administration's obstruction marking and lighting circular, soon to be updated.

More recently, Manville was involved as the Project Officer in a research study conducted at 24 communication towers in Michigan intended to scientifically evaluate the impact of communication towers on birds migrating through Michigan.

"Rather than litigate, funds were used to conduct a detailed, multi-year study," Manville said. The focus of the study was on tower lighting, height and presence of guy wires, he explained. "By extinguishing the red, steady-burning lighting on tall towers -- the so-called L-810 lights -- but leaving on the red flashing incandescent or red strobe lighting, bird mortality was reduced by up to 72% at some towers.

"This was an astounding finding with significant ramifications for making towers more bird-friendly," stated Manville. "White lighting is not affected since L-810s are not required on white-strobe-lit towers."

The Principal Investigator of this study was Dr. Joelle Gehring, with the Michigan Natural Features Inventory. Dr. Gehring is currently conducting a follow-up tall tower study in Michigan and New Jersey funded by the U.S. Coast Guard, the preliminary results of which are replicating findings from the earlier Michigan study. Manville also serves as the project officer for this study.

For Manville, there is an obvious fix which can significantly reduce bird mortality: "modify the lighting standard" by phasing out steady burning red lights. This lighting can be replaced by flashing red lights, red strobes, or white strobes.

"Based on the new published bird-friendly standards, especially for lighting, the FCC should implement proposed rulemaking submitted for public comment in 2007," Manville said. The FCC has not yet implemented the memorandum of understanding required by Executive Order 13186, although arguably they are an independent Federal commission rather than a Federal agency. However, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission -- another independent Federal commission -- is about to sign an MOU with the Service under the Executive Order.

"The public needs to better understand the documented impacts of communications towers on migratory birds, published in the U.S. literature since at least 1949, as well as what can be done to significantly reduce bird take," Manville said. "With the new lighting research findings, this should be a priority."

The public can provide comments to the FCC on scoping concerning their Antenna Structure Registry database. Comments are due to the FCC by no later than January 14, 2011.

Nebraska Situation

The Ecological Services Office of the F.W.S. regularly reviews applications for communication and cellular towers. The agency provides recommendations during the planning process for any regulated tower.

During the past couple of months, about 12-15 reviews have been conducted, mostly for cellular towers, according to Martha Tacha, an agency biologist in Nebraska.

"Only three of these towers were not self-supporting or did not address agency recommendations up front," she said.

The USFWS has a set of recommended measures that should be included in tower construction, and the following list is a summary, used for a recent evaluation:

1. Collocate with a nearby tower or other existing structure, if one exists.
2. Construct a tower less than 199 feet above ground level. Try to keep all towers unguyed, monopole or lattice-supported, and unlit. If a taller tower is built that uses guy-wires, install bird deflectors on the wires to reduce the potential for bird collisions. The deflectors should be maintained as long as the tower is present.
3. Where possible under FAA standards, the tower should not be lit. If lights are needed, the agency recommends the use of flashing white or red strobe lights or blinking red incandescent lighting to be used as aircraft warning beacons. Use of steady-burning red lights should be avoided whenever possible.
4. An self-standing tower should not be built within one mile of any wetlands, wet meadows or riverine habitats.
5. The new tower should be designed to accommodate at least two additional users.
6. Security lighting should be down-shielded to keep light within the boundary of the site. Security lights should be motion or heat activated, not left "on" all night.
7. If the tower is constructed, there was a request to allow USFWS and Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and/or their contractors to conduct dead-bird searches on a regular or irregular basis. If such studies are conducted by independent contractors or tower consultants, studies should be coordinated with the USFWS Field Office, appropriate permits acquired where necessary, and results should be provided to USFWS and the Commission.
8. Within one month after construction is completed, post-construction photographs and a signed statement that the above conservation measures were implemented, need to be provided to the F.W.S. and F.C.C.
9. The tower and building should be removed once the facility is no longer in use or is abandoned.

The agency has recently added additional requirements that any projects done during the bird breeding survey, should have surveys done to "determine the absence or presence of breeding birds and their nests." Also, what avoidance measures that can be implemented to avoid the take of migratory birds.

Our office "is not aware of any studies of tower kills in Nebraska," Tacha said.

"It is important to have this kind of information."

A Tally of Towers and Towerkills

More than 100,000 communication towers are estimated as occurring within the United States. These structures range in height from 200 to more than 800 feet. There is an estimated annual growth of 7-10 percent.

Each of these towers are registered with the Federal Communications Commission, making it possible to evaluate their occurrence and extent. The best site to view tower type and location is the towerkill.com website, which provides a map for each state in the continental U.S., and a tally of the types of towers present in 1998, 2004 and 2001.

The following summary for four states in the northern Great Plains, readily shows the increase in towers, based upon a comparison of 1998 to 2010, as summarized from the towerkill.com information.




200-299 feet



300-499 feet



500-799 feet



800+ feet






200-299 feet



300-499 feet



500-799 feet



800+ feet





South Dakota

200-299 feet



300-499 feet



500-799 feet



800+ feet





North Dakota

200-299 feet



300-499 feet



500-799 feet



800+ feet






200-299 feet



300-499 feet



500-799 feet



800+ feet






Increasing numbers are readily apparent for other states and regions.

Examples of Bird Mortality

There are several prominent examples of bird mortality at communication towers. Some examples include:

1948: a large kill at a radio tower near Baltimore, Maryland

1955 and for 29 subsequent years: a minimum of 42,384 records, representing 189 species at a television tower at the Tall Timbers Research Station in northern Florida

1957 and for the subsequent 38 years: nearly 121,560 records for 123 species

1963: more than 12,000 birds retrieved from the base of a tall television tower in Eau Clair, Wisconsin

1972: reports of single night kills exceeding 1000 birds at television towers in Tennessee and Florida

1982 and subsequent years: variable numbers from 4,782 in 1982 to 6 in 1992 at three tall television towers in Buffalo, New York;

1983: 320 casualties, representing 40 species, during September 12-16, at the KCNA-TV Tower in Boone County, Nebraska; the specimens are now in the collection at Wayne State College.

2003-2005: multiple tower study, with 203 birds noted in spring 2005 at 24 towers, and 173 during the autumn at the same towers

2005: On September 7-8 and also on September 13-14, an estimated 400 birds killed each night at the 1,100 foot WMTV tower near Madison, Wisconsin.

2005: more than 500 killed in a three-night period during October at an 1,100 foot height tower near West Monroe, New York.

Further information on additional known tower kills is readily available at numerous online sources.

Based upon the extensive number of known towers of varying heights, and the relative few reports, it is obvious that little information is available on the probable, and wide-spread occurrence of mortality. The recent studies in Michigan are an exception, and further indicate how dangerous towers can be for migratory birds of many sorts. Similar results would result from similar efforts wherever towers occur.

Significant Milestones in Historic Ornithology Compilation

While adding records of historical notations for birds in northern America, there were two significant milestones achieved in latter December.

Because of references found on internet archive sites, further records of bird specimens for 1880 and later were discovered. Once one particular reference was evaluated, there were an additional 496 records added to the database of records. In order to suitably add the observations, more than 75 new distinct site names were also added.

Both of these items increased the number of records and extent of coverage for this compilation of birds records for the region of America from Panama northward. Nearly every record is also based upon an observation made more than 125 years before present.

Specimen Catalogue

The most recent publication reviewed was a catalogue of birds, eggs and nests in the collection of the Greene Smith Museum, of Peterboro, New York, as published in 1880. Someone compiled the contents within 48 cases of material.

Smith was the son of a "New York reformer, philanthropist and abolitionist Gerrit Smith," and "was an avid sportsman and early conservationist who established a distinguished legacy as a self-taught expert ornithologist and taxidermist."

There were 486 usable records representing more than 320 species, which included an identification, and very importantly, the date and location for the record. Each record was entered into a database and designated to a particular site.

Information on eggs and nests was not usable since no dates were given.

This publication was found online at the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Resources found here and at other places are essential in any effort to evaluate historic ornithology since they provide sources which can be found by careful searching. Many of the older publications noted by such an effort would have never been located using the bibliographic options available even five years ago.

Interesting Details

An essential aspect of the specimen records are the many different localities indicated as the source of the collection's material. The catalogue has items from the Baja Peninsula (lower California) and elsewhere in Mexico, the Bahama Islands, Disco Island along the coast of western Greenland. There are 26 states represented, with the larger number of records from these states:

Illinois, including Calumet, Cook County and six other localities: 95 records
New York (14 localities): 87
Texas (11 localities: 66
Florida (12 localities): 61

Some of the records have a vague location designated (i.e., Atlantic Ocean, North Pacific Ocean), but nonetheless are a part of the historic record.

What is interesting is that some of the dates for specimens match notations from other references, and are useful in indicating a possible source of specimens, during an era when correspondents exchanged material in their individual effort to establish their personal collection. Specimens were also sold, as shown in ads in the early ornithological publications.

Interesting Species

Species represented the most in the entered records are the Song Sparrow, Greater Prairie-Chicken, Northern Bobwhite, Ruffed Grouse, Horned Lark and Song Sparrow.

Among the distinctive records from the catalogue notations for four rare or now extinct species.

Carolina Parakeet: specimen from 26 Feb 1877 at Bayport, Florida

Eskimo Curlew: specimen from 19 Mar 1878 at Gainesville, Texas

Ivory-billed Woodpecker: specimen from 17 Mar 1876 at Hernando Co., Fla.

Whooping Crane: specimen 21 Mar 1871 from Champaign, Ills.; this record is perplexing due to the northerly locality in early spring. Though this would not be expected, based on more contemporary information, having a specimen adds to the credibility of the record.

These records are just a few of the interesting details derived from this particular source. Add in the whole set of information and there is information available but not yet obvious on the occurrence and distribution during a period of ca. 10,000 years.

Another similar source awaits analysis and data entry is another catalogue, this one from Europe, which lists the 6006 specimens in the Hugh Edwin Strickland collection. A preliminary review indicates there are records from Carlisle, Pennsylvania as provided by S.F. Baird, and items from Jamaica and Guatemala.

Among the specimens in the Oxford Museum of Natural History, are some from Northern America, and which are available to review and consider in any evaluation of species records for the continent.

None of these three sources have been noted as being previously evaluated for their contribution to the continental avifauna. They certainly have essential details of occurrence.

15 December 2010

Scout Projects Enhance Resort for Nature in Omaha

Autumn was an active time at Omaha's Heron Haven as numerous Boy Scouts were completing their Eagle Scout projects.

"Heron Haven is a local treasure which the scouts' efforts have made even more special," said Ione Werthman, the guiding force, site manager and overall visionary for the nature area near 119th and Old Maple Road. "We are a volunteer-run area, and any projects can help improve our area. I am very proud of the fabulous jobs the scouts did."

Heron Haven comprises 25 acres at a site which, in 1991 was slated to become an apartment complex.

It is now a wetland resort for nature, providing educational and learning opportunities for schools, scouts and church groups as an important and essential part of its mission.

There were at least a dozen scouts, from different Omaha troops, which recently finished their projects, Werthman said. "We've had six one year, and three or four other years, so the boy's effort this year were exceptional."

There have been about 30 scout projects done on the area in the past ten years, Werthman noted.

Particular projects she mentioned, included:

Frank McKenzies: constructed a chimney swift tower which was placed in an appropriate place. This species has not yet been observed at the haven, but Werthman said she is looking forward to adding it to the site's currently tally of 139 species of birds.

A set of triplets, each completed their own project. Mike Bauwens built six benches, placed along the trail, providing a place for a respite while walking about. His brother Patrick, built 20 bluebird houses which were installed along the dike which is the western boundary of the haven, and along Old Maple Road. The Eastern Bluebird is another species which can hopefully be added to the site's bird list. Ben Bauwens placed wire protection around 22 trees to prevent any beavers from gnawing on them, which could result in their loss.

Mason Hiller made six tree permanent identification signs that were anchored in concrete along the hiking trail, which will be beneficial in noting trees during hikes for visitors as well as helping younger scouts identify trees while getting their nature merit badges.

Philian Hoff improved the parking lot, including eradicating an unwanted invasive species, the Asian reed canary grass.

Stephen Hardesty also worked to get rid of the same unwanted grass, and planted native grasses to add to the "backyard setting" around the nature center.

Andrew Fish cleaned up and widened the hiking trail, and putting pea gravel in place to make the route to the boardwalk, handicap accessible.

Brian Ermal improved and widened the trail, placing wood chips for a good distance through the trees and to the viewing blind near the wetland.

Garrett Barrends built a protection fence railing along a curve in the trail where it is near water, making the route safer for young kids.

Blake Gittler improved the front of the building by removing weeds, putting plastic in place and covering it with pea gravel to inhibit future growth, did some painting and otherwise improved the "front door appeal" of the nature center.

Previous scout projects have been helpful by painting the building, making recycle bins and putting fences around the gardens, Werthman said.

Additional community support was provided by a local resident who donated their former wooden fence, when they were redoing their yard.

Heron Haven relies on volunteers to get things done, as it is supported by memberships and donations.

"I personally invite area residents to Heron Haven to personally observe the wonderful results of the scout projects," Werthman said, adding that "we are trying to get ideas for new projects all the time."

Environment Omaha Recommendations Unanimously Approved

The Omaha City Council unanimously approved the recommendations submitted by the Environment Omaha project.

The numerous recommendations and findings will now become the environmental component of the Master Plan for the city of Omaha.

Several proponents gave testimony at the December 14th council hearing.

The first speaker was Connie Spellman, director of Omaha by Design, and project manager for the effort. She was "proud to present an environmental plan for Omaha," the result of about 200 individuals providing at least 4000 hours of volunteer work.

"There was incredible volunteer support," Spellman said, adding that project participants "wanted to get as much community involvement as possible."

Participants in the project included local business people, city personnel from the mayor's office and public works and Parks and Recreation, advocates, and the numerous people whom attended the public meetings. A website was provided to provide regular updates and an opportunity to provide comments on the information presented.

A representative for each of the five primary topic areas, then provided brief comments on their particular subject.

They included:

Neal Smith, representing the natural resource advisory group
Marty Shukert, noting the need for a greater residential density and more extensive "active measures" of transportation, instead of individuals driving
Jay Noddle, developer of Aksarben Village, for the building construction group, whom noted the plan is a "chance for the community to be a leader and more responsible," and that after "lots of debate" ... "recommended goals that are achievable to make Omaha a model community."
Marcella Thompson, a ConAgra employee, for the resource conservation component, noting the "concept of continuous improvement," that "sustainability is a journey, not a destination," and commenting that "public education is a critical component"; and
Mikki Frost, of Alegent Health, on the findings related to community health, noting that Omaha is rated 142 among 182 healthiest cities, and that features of the plan could help "create and active, safe and healthy Omaha."

The plan "proactively lays the foundation for a sustainable city," said Rick Cunningham, planning director for the city of Omaha, and is a "paradigm shift" that provides an "environmental roadmap" that is "not revolutionary, but evolutionary in nature."

A representative of the League of Women's Voters said the plan is a "firm foundation for prudent decision-making."

There were no comments provided by local conservation groups or individuals.

No opponents spoke at the public hearing.

Approval of the plan does not commit the city of Omaha to any new spending or regulations, according to testimony presented.

"The plan is a guide which does not enact regulations," said Steve Jensen, former planning director for the city of Omaha, who was involved with the effort. It also does not stipulate creating any new public jobs.

The $75,000 effort was financed by the Papio-Missouri Natural Resources District, Metropolitan Area Planning Agency and the City of Omaha Public Works Department.

The initiative started in December 2008, with public meetings to discuss the overall effort, and subsequent meetings and discussions on each of the five primary topic areas.

14 December 2010

Bird Information Needed for Flint Hills

Efforts are now underway to gather the details necessary for the Flint Hills Region to be recognized as a Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network landscape.

The project is being led by The Nature Conservancy, which has "identified the Flint Hills as a priority conservation action site" and has had a "community-based conservation initiative" since 2001.

The region has also been rated as the top priority for conservation by the Kansas Natural Heritage Inventory, and is "one of only six grasslands in the contiguous U.S. that is globally outstanding for biological distinctiveness," according to the World Wildlife Fund.

There are "some gaps in the knowledge" about the extent of occurrence for some birds species - i.e., where they occur and how many might be present - especially during spring migration, as well as winter occurrence of different species, said Robert L. Penner II, the Cheyenne Bottoms and Avian Programs Manager, with The Nature Conservancy.

The Flint Hills are "thought to serve as a major migration linkage for birds, raptors and shorebirds," according to a federal report. They also are a haven for a large population of the Greater Prairie-Chicken. The large expanses of intact tallgrass prairie provide nesting habitat for iconic grassland species such as the Grasshopper Sparrow, Dickcissel, Eastern Meadowlark and Henslow's Sparrow. Further information about the occurrence of the Smith's Longspur and Sprague's Pipit is also needed.

Of particular interest is the Buff-breasted Sandpiper, which is classified as a species of conservation concern.

In 2007, numerous flocks were observed in the southern Flint Hills region, according to information provided by The Nature Conservancy. Researchers "feel that a significant portion of the total Buff-breasted Sandpiper population utilize the Flint Hills as a migration foraging stopover site during the spring migration."

"The majority of this species may be migrating through the region," Penner said, noting they are already known to occur at suitable places within the grassland region

"In addition, there may be very large numbers of American Golden-Plovers passing through," Penner said, "so we would like to get a better idea on how much they use the region. Also, the Upland Sandpiper not only migrates through the area, but also nests," so there is a need to also document the occurrence and numbers of this shorebird.

This effort will involve several "data gathering avenues" in which volunteer assistance is essential:

1) Particular routes will be surveyed on a regular basis from March into May
2) A region-wide survey will be conducted during a two-three day period, which will occur during the peak of the period when Buff-breasted Sandpiper are migrating northward
3) Gathering records of winter use by birds
4) Compiling observations from bird-watchers on outings within the region

Information from these survey efforts will be compiled with a records database, denoting which species was seen, especially noting the particular date and place.

A compilation of pertinent bird records would also be useful in providing a better understanding of bird use and occurrence within the region, Penner said.

A secondary goal of this project is to designate the region as an "Important Birding Area," is association with the effort underway by the National Audubon Society.

The Nature Conservancy launched its Flint Hills Initiative in 2001, and also owns more than 60,000 acres of "conservation landholdings within the region, including Konza Prairie (which includes a field research station), and the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. An additional 60,000 acres have been conserved through conservation easements given to The Nature Conservancy, Kansas Land Trust, Ranchland Trust of Kansas, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Partners for the current project include the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, University of Kansas, and the Kansas Biological Survey.

A Flint Hills Legacy Conservation Area project was recently announced by the Fish and Wildlife Service, which authorizes the federal agency to acquire conservation easements on up to 1.1 million acres.

For further information about the initiative to document bird use, or to volunteer for this project, Penner can be contacted at his office in Ellinwood, Kansas (620-564-3351) or via email (rpenner @ tnc.org).

09 December 2010

Dakota Grassland Project Would Accelerate Wildfowl Habitat Conservation

To "accelerate" the conservation of wetland and prairie habitats in the Prairie Pothole region, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to establish a Dakota Grassland Conservation area.

The project would work with private landowners to develop voluntary conservation easement agreements to protect unique natural habitats in an area extending from southeast South Dakota, to east and northern North Dakota and to the extreme northeast corner of Montana.

"We need to accelerate funding in this area," said Nick Kaczor, the planning team leader for the project. Native habitats are being converted to cropland and other uses at a faster rate than in past years, and we need more options for protecting vital places."

The agency has identified 240,000 acres of wetlands, and 1.7 million acres of grasslands for conservation within the area, which is known as a significant "duck factory" in North America. These lands are important for protecting the unique ecosystems of the region, which are important havens for a myriad of birds and other wildlife.

These locales were determined by preparing map overlays which indicate known havens for birds species in need of conservation, including waterfowl species, Marbled Godwits, Grasshopper Sparrows and Sprague Pipits, Kaczor said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has been actively protecting habitats in the region since earlier in the 1900s, and has established easement agreements since the 1960s, said Kaczor.

The Dakota Grassland project would utilize funds from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to purchase easements, and which would complement efforts now financed through the Small Wetlands Acquisition Program, and the Migratory Bird Stamp purchased by waterfowl hunters and other enthusiasts.

Potential partners in the effort include The Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, Delta Waterfowl, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Three public meetings are being held during December for people to provide their comments on the proposal. Written comments will be accepted through December 31st.

The project is now in the initial stages of the public scoping process required by the National Environment Policy Act. A draft land protection plan will be released later in the winter, and its availability will be announced on the project's webpage.

"I am absolutely excited about the potential of this project," Kaczor said. "It is not very often there is an opportunity to do a project on a landscape level."

If the project moves ahead, it would get started in 2013, Kaczor said.

The federal agency recently announced a similar project for the Flint Hills region of Kansas and Oklahoma.

New Nesting Site for Rare Albatross

A nest with a single egg is the cause of great excitement for conservation of a distinctive bird of the northern Pacific Ocean.

A nest on Midway Atoll currently being incubated by a female Short-tailed Albatross is significant as it is the first nesting for the species "outside of Japan in modern history," according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which manages the site, which is part of the Midway Atoll NWR.

"This is an amazing event," said John Klavitter, acting Refuge Manager of Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, about 1200 miles northwest of Honolulu, Hawaii.

Refuge staff have been closely watching the occurrence of this rare species, which had previously been known to breed only on a couple of islands near Japan during the past few decades.

A male of this species has been observed on the island since 1999, Klavitter said. In 2000, 42 male decoys were spread in suitable places on the island, and bird calls were played to attract this particular species. The male was male bird was attracted to the decoys, preening and trying to illicit a suitable breeding response, Klavitter said.

In 2007-2008, a female albatross joined a male bird. In 2009, the pair had a closer bond, and spent more time together, according to the notes conveyed by an online posting.

Breeding has occurred in 2010, when a pair had a nest with a single egg, which is typical for this long-lived species. The male incubated a freshly laid egg on November 16, and incubation has continued, Klavitter said. The female is now atop the active nest.

Short-tailed Albatross incubating egg, Midway Atoll NWR.
Photo courtesy of U.S. F.W.S. Click on image to view other photos.

The current nest is only a short distance from two of the artificial birds, as shown by photographs of the nesting site.

"It is so exciting to have these birds nest," said Klavitter, who has personally painted albatross decoys and monitored the sound system. "This is a once-in-a-career occurrence, and so incredible to have a 'dream' realized."

News of the occurrence was first posted on a popular online venue, and was one of the first stories issued by the refuge on an online venue, with the story on one popular online site, and pictures on another.

The information was presented to "build conservation awareness of seabirds in the Pacific," Klavitter said.

The Short-tailed Albatross was formerly a common species in the northern Pacific Ocean basin, based upon historic accounts including records from coastal Alaska, its numbers have dramatically dwindled to where there is just a small, remnant population, known to nest on two islands near Japan.

An increase in its distribution is significant, as it indicates a potential for a greater range of breeding success.

On Midway Island, refuge staff closely monitor the occurrence of this species locally as well as elsewhere with the middle Pacific region

Colleagues have noted two Short-tailed Albatrosses on Kure Atoll, approximately 60 miles northwest of Midway, Klavitter said. To the south, a short-tailed albatross has been visiting Laysan Island.

Kure and Midway atolls are part of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

With an apparent increase in the numbers of the Short-tailed Albatross, they now occur more often at places within their historic range of distribution.

These birds are "beautiful and magnificent with a wonderful plumage," Klavitter said.

The nesting of a pair on Midway Island is a "symbol of hope for conservation of seabirds," Klavitter said.

06 December 2010

Report on Addressing Feral Cats Captures Media Attention

A report which presents options to manage feral cats, has received more attention because of a news article issued in the Lincoln and Omaha newspapers. There have been numerous comments online - in editorials, stories and blog postings - with the many comments indicated by a search on "feral cats" at an online news article website.

The commentary has brought renewed interest in the publication "Feral Cats and Their Management" issued by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln extension office as an extension circular.

Feral cats are "domestic cats gone wild," according to the illustrated guide, and do not have any owner, are not tame, and live outdoors, and are known to prey on available food resources including wild birds. More than 60 million feral cats are estimated to occur in the United States.

Predation by cats on birds has an economic impact of more than $17 billion dollars per year in the U.S. The estimated cost per bird is $30, based on literature citing that bird watchers spend $.40 per bird observed. ..."

The guide is the result of a project by University students a couple of years ago, according to Stephen M. Vantassel, a wildlife damage project coordinator at UNL. A class taught in the past couple of years by Scott Hygnstrom (vertebrate pest specialist at UNL) did a review of the published literature on this subject, considered the issue and otherwise investigated the subject of feral cats and related topics.

The American Bird Conservancy was quoted in association with the article, and supported its findings.

"We are grateful for the comments from the American Bird Conservancy," Vantassel said.

The NebGuides are issued to help people resolve issues related to wildlife. ONE essential aspect of this particular guide is the "legal status" of feral cats.

Feral cats in Nebraska are not defined within any state statute, making it difficult for people to suitably address their presence or impacts, or undertake any necessary control measures, in a legal manner.

"This is a legitimate question," said Vantassel, noting there is no definition of feral cats which indicates whether they are "domestic or wild" and how they are subsequently considered.

The circular provides several strategies that are effective for people that need to "deal with" unwanted feral cats.

The situation is especially prominent in urban areas, where birds congregate in small tracts of usable habitat.

Vantassel noted there are other impacts to wild birds, including habitat destruction and fragmentation, bird strikes at buildings and towers, and other factors which cause bird mortality.

Landscaped areas such as urban park lands and similar places are examples of sites where local predation can cause bird mortality.

Migratory birds gather at urban landscapes where they are prey for local predators. These sites are "bird sinks" where predators have a significant advantage over their prey and can cause major negative impact on bird populations.

The issue of feral cats "has to be dealt with," Vantassel said, stating that there is a need to "start somewhere" to address the mortality of wild birds by feral cats which are a "protected predator which cause an imbalance in the natural order."

The circular says "...this is a difficult and controversial topic ..." It considers the applicable issues regarding feral cats, the known impacts on birds and other species, and available options.

"One solution is not a total solution," Vantassel said. "Feral cats are a human-created problem that can be resolved" by carefully considering the issue and taking appropriate steps.

Stephen Vantassel's comments are his own and do not reflect official policies and positions of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He can be reached at stephenvantassel1@hotmail.com

Errant Gull Attracts Local and National Birdwatchers

An errant Ross's Gull has brought local and national bird watchers to the Gavin's Point Dam area in the past few days.

The species was first noted on November 26 by Mark Brogie, from Creighton, Nebraska on a bird-watching outing during Thanksgiving weekend.

There have been a number of subsequent sightings in the area in southern South Dakota, which includes the dam, as well as Lake Yankton.

A primary consideration for the locale where the observations have been made are which state or county where the this gull has occurred.

Based upon the numerous postings to the Nebraska and South Dakota bird forums, the flights of this gull has contributed to the records of occurrence for this species in South Dakota and Nebraska.

"Cuneate-tailed Gull, Larus roseus Macg."
From: Coloured Figures of the Birds of British Islands, as issued by Lord Lilford.

There is an "indefinite" boundary along the river, so the pertinent posts has included discussions regarding the political boundaries, which certainly mean nothing to the gull as its days are focused on finding the necessities for survival.

The word about this one bird was quickly spread. There were notes on the South Dakota bird discussion group as well as the similar message board in Nebraska.

News of the sighting went way beyond the two-state region.

Enthusiastic bird-watchers many other states came to see the "beautiful" bird. People from Florida, Missouri, Texas, New York have made their way to the Missouri River reservoir to get a look at this Arctic bird, so rare in the lower 48 states.

The ornithological significance is that the birds' presence is a new record for South Dakota, as well as one of the few sightings for Nebraska.

There are only a relatively few records for this bird occurring in the continental states of the United States.

During the past few weeks, another Ross's Gull was seen in Colorado.

The reason for their occurrence was attributed to a weather system, which thrust Arctic air southward to the Great Plains.

Ornithological History

The Ross's Gull which has been spending time about Gavin's Point Dam, is a single indication of a rare bird, which has caused an increased attention to gulls and other birds at Great Plains reservoirs.

Reports from the different bird forums have included notes about several species which are not usually expected. The following tally is based upon notations provided by birders such as Ricky D. Olson, Scott Stolz and Paul Roisen whom have made particular efforts to observe different species at the different dam sites. The numbers represent the number of the species which have been counted, which are based upon multiple visits, as for example, there is just one Ross's Gull at in the area of Gavin's Point Dam and Lake Yankton. The asterisks indicate birds which were noted but where there was no count.

Bird Species

Gavin's Point Dam

Fort Randall Dam

Big Bend Dam

Oahe Dam

American White Pelican





Barrow's Goldeneye





Black Scoter





Black-legged Kittiwake





Bonaparte's Gull










California Gull





Common Goldeneye





Common Merganser





Double-crested Cormorant





Glaucous Gull





Glaucous-winged Gull





Great Black-backed Gull





Herring Gull





Iceland Gull





Lesser Black-backed Gull





Little Gull





Long-tailed Duck





Mew Gull





Ring-billed Gull





Ross's Gull





Sabine's Gull





Thayer's Gull





It is readily obvious - based upon observer reports - that the dams and reservoirs of the Missouri River are a place suitable for a variety of bird species, as indicated by bird watches focused on determining the occurrence of species at different places.

Wandering Birds

The Missouri River occurrence of the Ross's Gull changed during the first weekend of December.

Upon the same day when the resident bird at Gavin's Point Dam was noted, there was another Ross's Gull at Branched Oak near Raymond, NE.

At the same time, another of this species was noted at Fort Randall Dam.

The mix of sightings at different localities meant further details were expressed to indicate other sites with similar features to the places where this species of gull was known to occur.

Gull Pics

Here are a couple of links to pictures of the Ross's Gull.

* Pictures by Roger Dietrich
* Pictures by Terry Sohl

02 December 2010

Birdwatching on Eagle Days at Squaw Creek

In recent days, splendid numbers of the special guests for "Eagle Days" have been winging their way southward along the Missouri River valley and gathering on the scene for the weekend event at Squaw Creek NWR.

Big flights of migrating Snow Geese have been noted flying southward along the river, with other fowl that have moved away from the snow and frigid cold temperatures of recent days on the northern Great Plains.

During a bird survey on November 29, staff of the refuge documented an impressive variety of wild birds, especially lots of waterfowl and another especially distinctive species, the Bald Eagle.

Consider these numbers:

  • Trumpeter Swan: 95
  • Snow Geese: 150,000
  • Mallard: 42,990
  • Northern Pintail: 8540
  • Ring-necked Duck: 510

Plus other species of dabbling and diving ducks.

There were also 36 Bald Eagles, and because of the vast numbers of ducks, more eagles could be expected to gather.

There is a phantasmagoria of birds, and many of them will be present when Eagle Days are held on December 3-5 at the refuge five miles south of Mound City, Missouri.

Shuttle bus and visitors at Eagle Days in 2009. Images courtesy of Ron Bell, U.S. F.W.S.

This is the 32nd annual Eagle Days, and the birds have been cooperative every year. The refuge makes the event a special time for visitor's to enjoy the vivid diversity presented.

"Eagle Days is a cooperative project and is successful only because of the many partners involved," said Ron Bell, manager of Squaw Creek NWR.

Highlights featured during the weekend include a "live eagle program" at the refuge maintenance building, where Bald Eagles will be presented "up-close" by volunteers of the Dickerson Park Zoo, from Springfield, Missouri. An eagle video will be shown in the headquarters auditorium.

Bus tours with a knowledgeable commentator, will take the visitors around the ten mile tour road of the refuge to show them the different birds and explain other notable features of the refuge, which is one of the few "Important Birding Areas" in the Missouri River valley.

During the weekend, volunteers will have spotting scopes set up at a few intervals along the auto-tour route, where the shuttle buses will stop, to allow people to get a close look at the wild birds. The live-eagle programs will be held hourly. The refuge headquarters will feature educational displays about Bald Eagles and other local natural history features.

When the first Eagle Days event took place it was done in conjunction with the Missouri Department of Conservation, Bell said. The state agency has been instrumental in getting school kids involved, Bell said, noting that they select the schools to be involved. This year about 600 kids are expected from many different schools, he said. In previous years, there have been 800-1000 kids from 15-20 schools.

Bell noted the following "partners" which contribute to the success of the three-day event:

* The Missouri Department of Transportation helps by placing signage along nearby Interstate 29, to inform people about the nearby bird refuge, and urging drivers to get people to slow their speed of travel to avoid any mishaps with the gathers flocks.
* The Ioway Tribe allows a 25-foot inflatable eagle to be placed in front of their headquarters, to bring attention to the event
* Volunteers from the Wildlife Society are hosts along some of the auto-tour stops, providing the spotting scopes so valuable in providing people a closer look.
* The Middle Empire Audubon Society promotes an interest in birds by selling bird seed during the weekend, with any profits used to fund activities at the refuge.
* The Friends of Squaw Creek, a vital part of the refuge, Bell said, sell tasty food, with profits used to promote environmental conservation and education at the refuge.

"I enjoy having each of the many partners helping us," said Bell. "We are all working to educate people about the value of Bald Eagles and the refuge lands." In addition to the Squaw Creek staff of eight people, Bell said, 13 other employees of the Fish and Wildlife Service will come to help make the day a success.

Spotting scope station at Squaw Creek NWR, 2009.

With 6-7000 people attending during previous years, the refuge has arranged for alternative parking and an easy means of getting to the refuge. Visitors can park at the nearby truck stop - up the hill - along Interstate 29, where free, hourly shuttle bus rides will be provided.

"Squaw Creek NWR has one of the largest visible concentrations of Bald Eagles east of the Rocky Mountains," said Bell, noting that the lowest number of eagles present during the past 23 years of the event was fifty, with one hundred a typical number. "Eagle Days is an important educational effort to show people these raptors and other birds here at the refuge."

The 7400 acre refuge has about 3600 acres of wetlands attractive to a great variety of birds.

Prominent among are a 600 acre and a 900 acre pool, as well as 15 other "moist-soil units" which are specifically managed to benefit resident and migratory bird life, Bell said. "Some have water all years. Some are drawn down in spring, then mown, burned or disced" to make the site attractive to birds."

"We have lots of active wetland management," Bell said.

The results are obvious, as shown by the number of fowl reported at the refuge, year after year, from visiting bird-watchers, whom document the species they note, which helps the refuge understand the avian diversity.

The number of birds which occur is "amazing," said Bell, who has been manager at the refuge for 23 years.

If unable to enjoy the special events of Eagle Days, the auto-tour route of the refuge is open each day during this time of the year. Many local birders visit the refuge to personally enjoy the huge flocks of gathered waterfowl, or to take a closer look and see what small birds such as sparrows or wrens or a whole array of Passerine species - might also be lurking among the variety of wildlife habitat.

Further information on Squaw Creek NWR is available on the refuges website, as well as at the Friends of Squaw Creek website.