THE BIRDING COMMUNITY E-BULLETIN

January 2023


This Birding Community E-bulletin is being distributed to active and concerned birders, those dedicated to the joys of birding and the protection of birds and their habitats. 

You can access an archive of past E-bulletins on the website of the National Wildlife Refuge Association (NWRA):
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RARITY FOCUS

 

There were a number of fascinating rarities that appeared in December and that probably deserve highlighting here. They include Bramblings in Washington, Rufous-backed Robins in Arizona, and Eurasian-type goose-species in the Northeast.

 

But the primary rarity-focus species of interest for the last month was Northern Lapwing which made multiple showings – although sometimes brief ones – in the Northeast. This striking and large plover species from Europe is casual in the Northeast and Atlantic provinces in late fall and winter.

 

Last month’s sightings included these:

  • One in York County, Maine, on the 12th.
  • An amazing flock of five in Aroostook County, Maine, near the New Brunswick border, from the 11th through the 17th when one was still present.
  • One on the morning of the 17th photographed at Parker River NWR, Massachusetts.
  • One on the 26th, in the town of Ipswich in Essex County, Massachusetts (quite possibly the same bird as that seen at Parker River NWR), remaining in farm fields through the end of the month.

 

For photos of that fascinating flock of Northern Lapwings in Aroostook County, Maine, see here:

https://ebird.org/me/checklist/S124018560

and here for the Ipswich bird:

https://ebird.org/checklist/S124903992

 

 

TIP OF THE MONTH: GOOSE-CHECKING!

 

As mentioned above, there were multiple rare geese present in North America last month, almost all found among flocks of our native geese. Certain European/Eurasian geese are almost becoming regular in the northeastern U.S. and Canada at this season.

 

A few of the goose species listed below nest in Greenland, Iceland, and northern Norway (Spitsbergen) and also winter in the British Isles and northwestern Europe. When found in North America, some individuals will linger on for weeks – or longer. This makes for a good opportunity to check through flocks of Canada Geese, Cackling Geese, and Snow Geese for the odd-looking goose. Here are at least a few examples, starting from mid-November and ending in late December:

  • A Pink-footed Goose was present at Lake Shelby in Shelby County, Kentucky, from about 17 November to 20 November. It was later also found in nearby Jessamine County, and moving around a bit through the end of the month.
  • Another Pink-footed Goose was at Northport High School in Suffolk County, New York, from 27 November to 4 December.
  • A third Pink-foot was at Tung Ting Pond, at Centerport, New York, for at least a couple of days around 4 December.
  • A fourth Pink-foot was in Durham and Strafford, New Hampshire, starting on 20 December, continuing through the end of the month.
  • A fifth was on the Avalon Peninsula-St. John's, Newfoundland, for the latter part of the month.
  • And a final, probable, Pink-footed Goose in Sussex, Delaware, on the 29th.
  • A Tundra Bean-Goose was first photographed on November 29 at Big G Lake in Decatur County, Iowa, and last seen on 12 December.
  • A Graylag Goose was observed and photographed on 3 December in Harricott, Newfoundland, and remained through 9 December.
  • And a number of Barnacle Geese – a species we almost regard as regular these days - were found from 4 December onward, including in Maryland (one), Massachusetts (possibly as many as four), and Pennsylvania (one). (On New Year’s Day, other single birds were reported from New Jersey and Newfoundland.)

 

There could certainly be more of these rare geese mixed in with large flocks of “our” geese as these November/December reports would suggest. Keep looking!

 

TIP ADENDUM: FINCHES

And, no, you don’t have to live in the East or concentrate on geese to partake in a seasonal search for wonder-birds. It looks like we are witnessing serious elements of a “finch eruption” this season, that started in late October with Purple Finches, Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins and more. Just about every species of boreal finch is moving southward in search of food somewhere. A classic pattern of feast and famine appears to be driving this potential banner finch season in many areas right now. This is being documented at backyard birdfeeders and beyond. For example, see here:

 https://news.prairiepublic.org/podcast/natural-north-dakota/2022-12-24/winter-finch-forecast-2022-2023

  and here:

https://finchnetwork.org/irruption-alert-like-a-steady-building-wave-here-come-the-finches?mc_cid=2dd8d16a1f&mc_eid=2a87d53300

 

 

ACCESS MATERS: LANDFILL EXAMPLE

 

A Common Shelduck was reported on 21 December at the Lebanon Landfill in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania. Reports of Common Shelducks in North America are confounded by the frequent presence of the species in captivity, so some of these birds may very well be escapes. Nonetheless, Common Shelducks are increasing significantly in Europe – not unlike Pink-footed, Barnacle, and Greylag Geese – so all sightings of Common Shelducks should be carefully recorded and documented to see if continued seasonal, regional, or frequency patterns continue to develop.

 

But our interest here is not on the plausible origins of this Pennsylvania bird, but rather the level of access afforded to interested birders at the Lebanon Landfill.

 

Access at the landfill has always been limited. However, birders have had a longstanding good relationship with management and crew, and arrangements have historically occurred (e.g., Christmas Bird Count and bluebird-box monitoring program) along with a sign-in/sign-out procedure. At some specific locations at this landfill, arranged escorts have always been necessary.

 

Last month, employees at the Lebanon Landfill quickly became aware of the shelduck situation and birder interest. In fact, some retrospectively reported seeing “an odd duck” for a number of weeks prior to the 21 December birder-discovery by Rita Stima. It helped that the landfill’s Executive Director was a nature enthusiast, trying his best to accommodate birders. And Stima’s role as liaison between visitors and staff was absolutely crucial.

 

Despite limited parking space, viewing was at first simple. The Common Shelduck’s’ most visited pond was right by the public roadside. But the bird relocated to an aerated pond out of public view due to a serious pre-Christmas freeze. Except for some confusion, misinformation, and over-eager birders over the extended Christmas weekend, the access issue was resolved remarkably well.

 

The landfill staff promptly came up with a creative idea to accommodate birders wishing access to the aerated pond. The landfill workers built a wooden footbridge on the afternoon of 27 December over a wet ditch located between the public road and the aerated pond. This made direct and safe viewing available near the aerated pond where the Common Shelduck could often be found out of sight beyond the public road.

 

What an ideal solution!  

 

Reports through the end of December indicated that gracious birders were delighted, and the staff was satisfied with the solution. See photos of the Common Shelduck here:

https://ebird.org/pa/checklist/S124495704

  and here:

https://ebird.org/checklist/S124534569

   and here (including video):

https://ebird.org/checklist/S124811300

 

The main point for us is that access to a potentially rare bird was enhanced by courtesy, cooperation, patience, and negotiation. That’s what really counts. Let’s make sure that this kind of practice serves as another fine example of making access work for everyone.

 

 

GLASS AGAIN: DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA PROGRESS

 

Last month, the Washington DC Council unanimously passed the Migratory Local Wildlife Protection Act. Among other things, this would require that for building permits for new construction or alterations involving glass the use of bird-friendly materials would be necessary. The Department of Buildings, in consultation with the Department of Energy and Environment, would also issue regulations accordingly.

 

The bill still has two hurdles to pass: it needs to be funded (for the costs of administration) and the DC Mayor has to approve it (subject to override). Given that the implementation costs are not seen as too high in terms of the overall city budget, and given the unanimous Council vote, supporters are optimistic.

 

Finally, the effective date for these standards would be for building permits issued after 1 October 2024, but since permits can take six months or more to be processed, it means that by early 2024, new buildings submitted for permit would have to be deemed bird safe.

 

 

IBA NEWS: IZEMBEK UPDATE  

 

The inviolability of Wilderness status for Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska is still undecided, although strong arguments were heard at a federal appeals level in mid-December to overturn the planned road at the refuge.

 

We described this last month, but we were not as clear and accurate as we should have been, and for this we need to clarify the issue accordingly.

 

Without question, the road’s construction could have a serious impact on more than half a million “Pacific” Brant, Steller’s Eiders, Emperor Geese, swans, and other wildlife, resulting in habitat fragmentation, disturbance, and possible pollution. To be sure, the road would be the first ever to bisect a congressionally-designated Wilderness, where, by definition, humans leave no mark.

 

The opposition to the road allowance made during the Trump Administration was based, at least in part, on challenging the lawfulness of the land exchange agreement itself signed in late June 2019 between the Department of the Interior and the King Cove Corporation. During last month’s hearing, attorneys for the U.S. government, state of Alaska, and conservation groups were asked many very specific and narrowly defined questions.

 

Bridget Psarianos, an attorney for Trustees for Alaska, representing a coalition of conservation groups in the case, said at the time that in agreeing to review the matter, the court “signaled that there are significant legal questions… that an unelected Interior Secretary may overrule Congress by giving away lands designated as Wilderness.”

 

The court did not indicate last month when it might rule, but we will keep readers up-to-speed on these significant developments.

 

In the meantime, you can find more information on the reasons for Izembek NWR as an Important Bird Area (IBA):

https://www.audubon.org/important-bird-areas/izembek-refuge-marine

and here:

https://www.audubon.org/important-bird-areas/izembek-moffet-kinzarof-lagoons

 

For additional information about worldwide IBA programs, including those in the U.S., check the National Audubon Society's Important Bird Area program web site at:

https://www.audubon.org/important-bird-areas

 

 

LESSER PRAIRIE-CHICKEN LISTED

 

In late November, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) published a final rule adding the Lesser Prairie-Chicken to the list of Threatened and Endangered species. The Service listed the Southern Distinct Population Segment (DPS) which ranges in west Texas and New Mexico as Endangered, and it listed the Northern DPS which ranges in northern Texas, western Oklahoma and Kansas, and southeastern Colorado as Threatened.

 

While historical estimates suggest that Lesser Prairie-Chickens once numbered in the hundreds of thousands, or even millions, across nearly 100 million acres of the Great Plains, populations have declined drastically due to habitat loss and fragmentation. Lesser Prairie-Chicken habitat has probably diminished across its historical range by about 90%.

 

The new listings are based on the USFWS’s determination that conservation efforts led by wildlife agencies and private partners in the range of the species will not be enough to offset the ongoing loss and fragmentation of large connected blocks of appropriate grassland habitat. These losses include, but are not limited to, energy development, untenable grazing, conversion of grasslands to cropland, and woody vegetation encroachment into the species’ native grassland habitat.

 

You can find more details here from the USFWS:

https://www.fws.gov/press-release/2022-11/lesser-prairie-chicken-listed-under-endangered-species-act

 

 

RECOVERING AMERICA’S WILDLIFE ACT: STARTING AGAIN

 

For about the last six months, we’ve tried to keep you abreast of the efforts to pass the important “Recovering America’s Wildlife Act” - H.R. 2773 and S. 2372. This legislation was seen as essential to providing support for animal and plant species already Endangered and could prevent more from reaching that precarious status. Over the months, we covered this progress, in our September issue:

https://conta.cc/3d3k0Bl

and also November:

https://conta.cc/3DFltXS

 

The bill, intended to provide almost $1.4 billion a year for broad wildlife conservation through the states, territories, and tribes, had passed the House of Representative in mid-June – with a vote of 231 to 190 – and had considerable support in the Senate. There were high hopes that the substance of the bill would be included in the $1.7 trillion Omnibus package that ultimately passed last month.  

 

It was not until the final hours of the complicated Omnibus negotiations with the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the White House that the bill’s inclusion fell out due to disagreements on how, precisely, to pay for it.

 

One of the last plans to pay for the bill would have applied the so-called “wash sale rule” to digital assets - including cryptocurrency - but some Senators negotiating the complicated effort started insisting on different applications of the rule, proposing that certain assets be classified differently, and also arguing that specific categories should be exempt. In the last hours, the efforts unfortunately collapsed, and the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act was left out of the Omnibus package.

 

Expansive wildlife conservation funding like this – basically through the states - has failed to gain sufficient political traction before, and past efforts for “Teaming With Wildlife,” with a tax/user-fee on outdoor gear, or the “Conservation and Reinvestment Act,” with potential reliance on offshore oil, were not convincing enough to win over a sufficient number of Congressional champions from both houses of Congress.

 

The good news this time around was that there was virtually no question over the need or the institutional vehicles (mainly states, territories, and tribes) to carry out these vital conservation tasks. The impressive work and almost-universal agreement through the latest campaign – e.g., with 1,800+ organizations and businesses engaged and supporting the efforts – was remarkable. So the work accomplished can still be the basis for new efforts with the next Congress. Indeed, supporters are in no way starting from zero.

 

At the same time, with inevitable renewed efforts, the issue of the source of funding – clear and uncomplicated – should be an essential part at the very start of any renewed campaign. The funding formula needs to be simple and generally acceptable, no easy task these days!

 

 

BIODIVERSITY AGREEMENT: WILL IT ENERGIZE?

 

An important agreement was reached on 19 December at the United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) in Montreal, an agreement that proposes increasing protections for the world’s biodiversity. With 190 nations participating – sadly, not formally including the U.S. - the intent was to craft an accord to protect 30% of the Earth's land and waters by 2030.

 

Under the final agreement, by 2030, the nations will pursue that pledge and offer some $200 billion per year to help fund these initiatives. Wealthier nations are expected to pay $30 billion annually to developing nations.

 

Like too many of these sorts of agreements, they are not legally binding. So how effective might this be in saving species that are at risk and protecting habitats? And the last time ambitious biodiversity targets were set - in 2010 at COP 10 - the nations collectively failed to meet just about any of their biodiversity benchmarks.

 

Still, we are continuing to face a sobering decline in biodiversity - including that of birds - driven in large part by human behavior and values, and the dire situation is becoming increasingly more apparent to larger portions of the public.

 

Alas, this Biodiversity Conference was not followed closely in the U.S. media, but there are certainly some encouraging signs. For those interested in pursuing these developments, you may want to check out the PBS Newshour interview with Collin O’Mara of the National Wildlife Federation:

https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/how-effective-will-un-biodiversity-agreement-be-in-saving-species-at-risk

 

 

BOOK NEWS: IT’S ABOUT VALUES

 

Herb Raffaele may be known to regular readers of this E-bulletin as author of A Guide to the Birds of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands (Princeton) or the co-author of A Guide to the Birds of the West Indies (Princeton). But Raffaele spent five decades in international wildlife conservation: from field biologist in Puerto Rico to Chief of the Division of International Conservation at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. As such, he was deeply engaged in international conservation well beyond birds. He saw what worked, and perhaps more importantly, he saw what did not work.

 

In his most recent book, Revoyage of the Mayflower: Societal Values – Conservation’s Driving Force, Raffaele has mined the depths of his experiences to share what he has learned concerning the primacy of societal values. Values – those held and those changing – are key to understanding and motivating people to save - or exploit nature - according to Raffaele.

 

Part of this approach is the assertion that our conservation community – including that portion devoted to birds - is not up to the challenges facing us all in the 21st Century, what with often too many people depending on obsolete approaches and inappropriately trained personnel. The hunter-and-angler approach to U.S. wildlife conservation that dominated the practice over much of the 20th Century may have served its purpose and resources at the time, but it no longer can serve as the model for our current situation, let alone that of the future. No, one size does not fit all.

 

Plenty of bird examples occupy parts of Raffaele’s book, especially two historic trends: that of the late 19th and early 2oth century (e.g., Heath Hen, Passenger Pigeon, Eskimo Curlew, and Carolina Parakeet), and that of the more recent hemispheric and Neotropical migrant emphasis. All are worthy of reconsideration and reevaluation.  

 

One intriguing theme in the book is the hypothetical situation with Hindus having roots from India, not our beloved Pilgrims with European roots, being among the first successful colonists to reach the shores of the New World. Under these circumstances, what parallel wildlife values might have prevailed? Toying with this counterfactual, Raffaele compares and contrasts the attitudes toward animals and nature that mark our own nation versus those of Hindu culture. This is what helps accentuate the importance of the “values factor,” key among Raffaele’s arguments.

 

Among other things, Raffaele examines our ongoing conservation dilemma and, across four of the last chapters of the book, he presents a nine-point framework for reorienting the mission of effective conservation. These are, indeed, heavy-duty concepts, and some may bump-up against what we have been regularly “told.”

 

Beyond that, our current state of resource conservation – including that of birds – is practiced in such a disparate manner that it barely seems coherent at all according to Raffaele. And his arguments are certainly not what most conservationists and resource managers are trained to do, nor are particularly comfortable accepting.

 

Everyone who is seriously involved in wildlife management, every leader of major wildlife organizations, every significant bird-club officer, should consider reading this book. And those same people should probably read Raffaele’s Chapter 5 – “A More Effective Path Towards Achieving Conservation”- twice.

 

Perhaps this book is coming at the right time, just as the COP15 wrapped up in Montreal (see the news report above) and as more people are asking what needs to be done for effective conservation, including that for birds across the planet’s lands and oceans.

 

  

LAST WORD

 

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