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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Utah's Inland Sea Shorebird Reserve

This week is the annual summer outdoor retail trade show in Salt Lake City. I am speaking (on behalf of National Audubon) this afternoon on a panel discussing birding. What else should we panelists do than go birding before hand? Local Audubon staff arranged for a trip out to the Inland Sea Shorebird Reserve last evening, and we were able to spend a couple of hours touring this fascinating wetland.

The reserve is a constructed wetland, one developed by
Kennicott Copper as required mitigation for a mine expansion (see their website for the entire story). According to Kennicott, "KUC actively worked with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, the US Fish and Wildlife Services, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Nature Conservancy, the National Audubon Society and the Corps of Engineers on developing the site which was opened in 1997."

We arrived at the wetlands in the late afternoon, long after the grassland birds had quieted for the day. However, on the drive in we did see numbers of typical western scrub and grassland birds such as Sage Thrasher, Lark Sparrow, and Brewer's Sparrow (while exiting we added Northern Harrier and Golden Eagle).

The highlight of our trip was the wetlands that characterize the sanctuary. Snowy Plovers breed prolifically in this area, and among the many that we saw were three downy young. Black-necked Stilt, White-faced Ibis, Canada Goose, and several species of waterfowl (Northern Pintail, Cinnamon Teal, Gadwall) were common in the ponds and pools. Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds rustled through the reeds. As evening approached several migrant flocks of Franklin's Gulls moved in, stopping before continuing their flights south to their wintering grounds off of the Pacific coast of South America.

I must confess that I am skeptical about the value of many of the mitigation wetlands that I have seen (my preference is to avoid). Yet, in this case, Kennicott and its partners have achieved a success where many have failed. This success has been recognized by Audubon designating the reserve an IBA. I would hope that others involved in mitigation would look to this project as a model of what can be accomplished with thought, planning, sensitivity, and, of course, funding. For more information, read this interesting case study of the reserve by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

Particular (and heartfelt) thanks go to the Great Salt Lake Audubon Society chapter for guiding the field trip. I have been associated with Audubon for most of my life, and nothing gives me greater pleasure than meeting a new chapter.

Ted Eubanks
23 July 2009

Video Scan of the Inland Sea Shorebird Reserve

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Caribbean Caper and the Barbuda Warbler

I have just returned after spending a week in Antigua and Barbuda, attending the Society for the Study and Conservation of Caribbean Birds conference. I had been invited to give the keynote address, and simply could not say no to another opportunity to meet with the various bird conservation interests in the Caribbean. I had last met with the group in Tobago in 2004, and I wanted to reacquaint myself with old friends and the important work they are engaged in across the Caribbean islands.

Before the conference, though, a number of us took the short flight across to Barbuda. Antigua has a population of around 70,000, and has a well-developed tourism industry (more on that later on the Fermata blog). Barbuda, however, has a small population of around 1500, and a fascinating communal society. Barbuda remains, thankfully, largely undeveloped.

The history of these islands simply repeats a pattern of colonization characteristic of the region (of much of the world, in truth). According to the U.S. State Department,

Christopher Columbus landed on the islands in 1493, naming the larger one "Santa Maria de la Antigua." The English colonized the islands in 1632. Sir Christopher Codrington established the first large sugar estate in Antigua in 1674, and leased Barbuda to raise provisions for his plantations. Barbuda's only town is named after him. Codrington and others brought slaves from Africa's west coast to work the plantations.

Antiguan slaves were emancipated in 1834, but remained economically dependent on the plantation owners. Economic opportunities for the new freedmen were limited by a lack of surplus farming land, no access to credit, and an economy built on agriculture rather than manufacturing. Poor labor conditions persisted until 1939, which saw the birth of the trade union movement in Antigua and Barbuda.

The name Codrington reappears in the lagoon which takes up much of the west of the island. The lagoon is shallow and is bordered by extensive mangrove forests. The most extensive Magnficant Frigatebird breeding colony in the world is located on Man of War Island, situated north of Codrington (the main settlement on the island) bordering the lagoon.

During our trip we visited the frigatebird colony. The males had yet to return to nest, and most of the remaining birds were juveniles and females. Yet by boat we were able to see hundreds of these spectacular birds, many within arm's reach. There were Brown Boobies roosting within the colony as well, and we heard and saw several of the local breeding Yellow Warblers (these of the "golden" warbler or Petechia group).
Speaking of warblers, the next part of our trip focused on the endemic Barbuda Warbler (Dendroica subita). In 2000 the American Ornithologist’s Union (AOU) ’split’ D. a. adelaidae into three monotyoic taxa under the names Adelaide’s Warbler D. adelaidae (endemic to Puerto Rico and Vieques), Barbuda Warbler D. subita (endemic to Antigua and Barbuda), and St Lucia Warbler D. delicata (endemic to St. Lucia). This warbler is found in the thorn-scrub on the western third of the island. During our time there we had no difficulty finding the bird, and by trip's end we had seen easily a dozen. Additional birds of interest found in the Barbuda forests were Lesser Antillean Flycatcher, numerous Caribbean Elaenias and Black-whiskered Vireos, and Gray Kingbirds at virtually every stop.

I find these isolated populations of parulids to be among the most fascinating birds. Most of us are exposed to the genus Dendroica through the wood warblers that breed and migrate through the Americas. Many of these birds are long-distance migrants, and only stop briefly in my yard in Galveston to feed and rest before continuing either to the tropics or back to their breeding grounds in the northern forests.

But here, on Barbuda, there is an isolated, non-migratory species of the same genus that exists no where else in the world. Birdlife International estimates a total population of 1500-2000 on Barbuda. With sea level rise associated with global climate change, it is not hard to see how such an isolated species is a grave risk. Barbuda, unlike Antigua (with Boggy Peak, soon to be Mount Obama, over 1300 feet high), the highest point on Barbuda is only 100 feet.

The other (and most immediate) threat to both islands (in fact to the Caribbean as a whole) is unsustainable tourism. Resorts and cruise ship terminals continue to spread through the region, although Barbuda still remains largely undeveloped. I can only hope that Antigua and Barbuda, after the latest financial fiasco, will consider a more sustainable form of economic development, one that respects the environment and is inclusive of the local residents.

Thanks to Mike Pienkowski, who accompanied us on the field trip, for allowing me to use a couple of his photos of the Barbuda Warbler. These were taken during our field trip.

Ted Eubanks
21 July 2009

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Let There Be Ducks

The preliminary estimate of total ducks from the 2009 Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey was 42 million, which is 13 percent greater than last year’s estimate and 25 percent greater than the 1955-2008 average.

The entire report is available on the USFWS Migratory Bird website.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Franklin's or Laughing?

For the past few days Texas birders have debated a gull found by Dan Jones in Hidalgo County. Is it a Laughing or Franklin's? There have been a few Franklin's lingering in South Texas this summer, and, of course, Laughing is a common breeding bird. You can see Dan Jones' photos at the following:

I have included a photo of a fall Franklin's and a Laughing side-by-side on East Beach in Galveston. Notice the difference in head shape, bill size, white tips on the primaries, and overall dainty "giss" that characterizes Franklin's.

Look at Dan's photos and let me know what you think.


Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Belize-Texas Connection

A friend forwarded me a wonderful article about a Common Yellowthroat, migrating through Belize, that returned to San Bernard NWR in Texas (not far from where I live). The details are available on the blog Neotropical Migrant Birds in Belize that details the research there that is focused on these long-distance travelers.

Now just where did that bird winter? Here is a bird, whose brain is the size of a black-eyed pea, that can find its way from the tropics back to the Texas coast.There are many nights when I have a hard time finding my house! No matter how long I study these creatures (now over 30 years), they never cease to startle me.

I love Pablo Neruda. Not only a Nobel Prize winning poet, Neruda was a dedicated birder. Here is a quote from one of his poems (translated to English) that captures the allurement of this Common Yellowthroat's wanderings:

Bird by bird
I have come to know the earth

Friday, June 19, 2009

Last Birder in the Woods - Congressional Letters

Here are the two letters of support (one for the House, one for the Senate) that are posted on the National Wildlife Federation website. I find the list of supporting organizations to be fascinating. Who would have thought that the National Audubon Society and the National Rifle Association would join forces to promote this legislation?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Last Birder in the Woods?


The new administration has proposed creating a 21st Century Youth Conservation Corps. Included in this proposal is additional funding for youth environmental education programs, with small increases in a variety of existing programs. Of particular interest is funding for young people to participate in conservation programs on public lands such as national wildlife refuges.

All of this sounds well and good. Almost every not-for-profit has hitched its wagon to "Last Child in the Woods." Isn't this what this new legislation is about?

Yes and no. What I find impossible to explain is that out of the $70 million budget ($50 million for new programs, $20 million for existing), $30 million is being set aside for recruiting new hunters and anglers. According to the Department of the Interior (DOI), “the 2010 budget includes an increase of $30.0 million to help set the stage for the next wave of hunters, anglers, wildlife, and other natural resource managers. The request includes $28.0 million for a new discretionary Federal Aid in Wildlife grants program to help States, Territories, and Tribes establish new creative programs to educate and energize young hunters and anglers.”

As some readers may be aware, there are four priority public uses for United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) wildlife refuges: hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography, and environmental education and interpretation. I could argue that three of the four uses are being addressed with this proposed budget (hunting, fishing, education). Strikingly absent are wildlife observation and photography. Not one cent is being proposed for attracting new young birders, naturalists, and photographers to the outdoors.

According to the agency’s own research, there are 30 million anglers, 12.5 million hunters, and 71.1 million wildlife viewers (in each case, age 16 and older) in the U.S. Of these wildlife viewers, 47.7 million watch, feed, and photograph birds.

As for youth recruitment, in 2006 there were approximately 12 million anglers age 6 to 15, with 10.5 million who only fished (i.e., did not hunt as well). There were 1.77 million in the same age group that hunted, with only 208,000 who only hunted. Looking at the age group 9-11, the hunting sample is too small to be statistically significant (around 38,000).

By contrast, there were 13.6 million Americans aged 6-15 who found their way to nature through watching, feeding, and photographing wildlife. Even more interesting were the over 4 million age 6 to 8 who watched, fed, and photographed wildlife, compared to the 3.2 million who fished and a sample for hunting that was too small to be reliably reported.

According to the most recent research from the Outdoor Foundation, among boys ages 6 to 12, participation in outdoor recreation dropped from 79% to 72% in 2007. Among girls of the same age, participation dropped from 77% to 61%.

Among all age groups, fly fishing decreased by 2.1%, freshwater fishing decreased by 15.8%, saltwater fishing increased by 5.2%, hunting (any type) decreased by 5.1%, and wildlife viewing increased by 8.3%. I mention these Outdoor Foundation figures since they tend to be the most conservative of the major surveys done on outdoor recreation, with the National Survey of Recreation and the Environment being the most liberal.

In comparison, the USFWS reported that in 2006, 30.0 million U.S. residents 16 years of age and older fished compared to 34.1 million who fished in 2001, a drop of 12 percent. Hunting dropped by 4 percent, from 13.0 million in 2001 to 12.5 million in 2006.

Here is what the USFWS has to say about wildlife watching: “The increase in wildlife-related recreation participation from 2001 to 2006 was due to wildlife watching (observing, feeding, and photographing wildlife). During this period, the number of people wildlife watching increased by 8 percent. Although their overall expenditures showed little change, they did spend 38 percent more on trips, 18 percent more on bird food and wildlife-watching equipment (such as binoculars, cameras, bird feeders), and 26 percent more on auxiliary equipment.”

Finally, according to the same agency’s assessment of the economic impacts of national wildlife refuges (Banking on Nature 2006), 82% of the total expenditures is generated by nonconsumptive activities (wildlife viewing) on refuges. Fishing accounts for 12% of expenditures, and hunting generates 6%.

As a birder, you might ask how does the DOI and the USFWS completely ignore a primary public use of the agency (as defined by the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966, amended by Public Law 105-57, approved October 9, 1997, 111 Stat. 1253,) one that has demonstrated effectiveness in attracting young people to the outdoors?

Perhaps here is the answer. According to the DOI information sheet, "hunting and fishing have long played an important role in our Nation’s development and served as the roots of today’s conservation movement. Today, hunting and fishing groups help guide and influence our conservation policies. In his campaign for President, Barack Obama committed to support America’s hunting and fishing traditions, including providing State fish and game agencies with additional resources and encouragement to reach out and educate young men and women about hunting and fishing opportunities, hunter safety, and the basic principles of fish and wildlife management." Is this new administration interested in change?

How is it that the National Audubon Society--purportedly a primary proponent of wildlife watching --signed support letters sent to Congress promoting legislation that so blatantly excludes wildlife watching? Why is the Sierra Club supporting this legislation without the inclusion of activities that predominate among its own members? Why are organizations such as the American Birding Association, the American Bird Conservancy, and the various bird clubs and state organizations silent? Where are the voices of the 47.7 million birders?

There may still be time to change this legislation if there is a groundswell of complaint from wildlife watchers (birders, in particular) around the nation. This proposed legislation has everything to do with birding, and now is the time for birders to speak up or shut up.


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