On the last day of February, a homeowner in Anchorage, Alaska, noticed a strange hefty finch at his feeder. Norm McAtee realized that "this bird is not from around here," and he was right. By 2 March, the bird was identified as a Hawfinch.
Hawfinches breed extensively, but locally, in Europe eastward to Sakhalin and Kamchatka, the Russian Far East, south to North Africa, the Caucasus, northern Iran, Tajikistan, and northeastern China. At this time of year, Hawfinches should be wintering in western Europe and south to the Middle East, eastern China, and Japan. The species is a rare migrant in the western Aleutians in spring, with a number of records there. In the eastern Aleutians and the Bering Sea Islands, it is rarer. And before this year there were only two Alaska mainland records, one bird 30 miles north of Kotzebue, 15-20 June 1990, and another at Dillingham, that wintered from 27 December 2003 to 23 January 2004.
The Anchorage Hawfinch, on Park Hills Drive, entertained observers from near and far at least through March. Mostly, it was observed in the mornings.
For some photos (by Peter Scully), see here:
IMPACT OF A VAGRANT BIRD
Last month, we wrote about the feeder-visiting Black-backed Oriole at Sinking Springs, Pennsylvania:
Curiously, that oriole has been there since its apparent late-January arrival through March. By the end of last month, over 1,600 people had come to see this bird.
Now, researchers at the Centre for Ecosystem Science, School of Biological, Earth, and Environmental Sciences, UNSW, Sydney, Australia, are attempting to measure the impact of this and other vagrant rarities on the economy. Such issues as travel time, money spent, lists kept, and experiences had at the site are being collected.
Whether you went to see the oriole or not, this survey and its standards and methodology may be of interest:
SOME OUTDOOR RECREATION TRENDS
And speaking of recent outdoor travel and recreation trends, a recent report, "Federal Outdoor Recreation Trends: Effects on Economic Opportunities," looked at participation in 50 nature-based activities in the U.S. The report was prepared for the Federal Interagency Council on Outdoor Recreation, which consists of seven government agencies, including the Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Forest Service. Its findings were based on the results of the Forest-Service sponsored National Survey on Recreation and the Environment, a telephone survey of people 16 years of age or older. It's the Forest Service's General Technical Report PNW-GTR-945.
Results in the recent report show that nature-viewing activities are among the fastest-growing pursuits, but some traditional activities like hunting and fishing have seen per capita declines. Nature viewing and photography activities had nearly 10 times more participation days than any other activity. Hiking was the most popular backcountry activity. Skiing and snowboarding were among the fastest-growing pursuits.
Looking into the future, birding, skiing, hiking, and horseback riding are among the activities likely to increase the most by 2030.
While the participation rate for nature viewing is projected to increase by slightly more than 1 percent through 2030, the participation rate for birding could increase by 4 percent. The viewing days per participant, however, are anticipated to decline by over 3 percent.
There are related problems. The expected decline in overall days is influenced by projected increases in population density and minority populations, as well as projected decreases in the extent of both forest and rangeland and national park acres per capita.
To read the full 46-page report, packed with charts and tables, see here:
ACCESS MATTERS: IT COSTS MONEY
It's only 62 pages long, but the President's FY18 Proposed Budget released last month, has real implications if you are interested in access to birding places. President Trump's 62-page budget document does not provide detailed spending changes, but it highlights certain key priorities.
When it comes to the outdoors, two big federal players - the Forest Service and Interior Department - could see deep cuts and big changes. The Department of Agriculture would absorb a 21 percent, $4.7 billion reduction. The Department of the Interior would see a 12 percent, $1.5 billion cut
Considering the possibilities for Interior is instructive. If the 12 percent cut were evenly applied to all Interior programs, it would slash $58 million from the National Wildlife Refuge System budget. The refuge budget is already down 20 percent from FY10 levels, and should Congress pass the President's suggested budget into law, it would be a severe blow to the Refuge System. Refuges would close or be complexed (i.e. consolidated), access for birders, hunters, anglers, and others would be lost, and volunteer programs could be ended as wildlife management efforts would proceed at a bare minimum.
Also under Department of the Interior jurisdiction, National Parks and BLM lands could sustain 12 percent hits, creating real threats to management and public access. Additionally, USDA Forest Service functions would also be at risk.
Both agencies would see reduced funding for new federal land acquisitions through the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). The White House budget proposal was unclear whether the many millions in offshore oil royalties that now should go to LWCF would be diverted to other areas, or shifted to maintaining and investing in existing parks, refuges and public lands. The threats to the conservation fund drew widespread criticism from outdoors organizations, including hunters and anglers. For example, the president of the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Land Tawney, called the proposal "unacceptable," explaining that the cuts to the LWCF would cripple a program that "has done more than any other federal program to conserve important landscapes and expand public opportunities to access and enjoy them."
TIP OF THE MONTH: FEEDER TRANSITIONING
Two of the birds profiled at the start of this E-bulletin are feeder-visitors: Hawfinch in Alaska and Black-backed Oriole in Pennsylvania. These give us an opportunity to take a closer look at seasonal transitioning at feeding stations.
It used to be that backyard bird feeding was mostly a winter experience, especially for those backyard feeding stations in the northern half of the Lower-48 states, and for those in much of Canada. One common standard for winter bird feeding was the mantra of starting at Thanksgiving and ending at Easter.
That no longer applies. Just because we may be approaching Easter, don't take down your feeding station. It may simply be time to start transitioning. Our tip this month is that preparation for year-round feeding should be the standard for any family station or nature-center experience.
Depending on your latitude and weather, now may be the time to start shifting the fare at your feeding station. As winter visitors drop off, getting ready for migrant birds and, soon, summer residents will be in order. As seasons change, so should the selection of foods and feeders.
The bird-feeding industry has created appropriate items like no-melt suet and special seed mixes to serve this growing, four-seasons trend. And there is the easy use of fruit pieces (e.g., apples, oranges, and grapes), jellies, and the dusting off of oriole- and hummer-feeders, replete with the correct sugar-mix.
Think backyard transition. A caveat to this advice is to recall that in some regions, bird feeders readily attract other wildlife species - even bears! - and that drawing such predators into heavily human-occupied environments can potentially pose a threat to both pets and humans. We suggest you check with local wildlife agencies for advice on this subject because in some areas it represents an increasing problem.
ABC AND CLO IN JOINT PROJECTS
Last month, two top bird conservation groups, the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, announced the launching of a new partnership, "Science to Action," designed to address decades of population declines for migratory birds in the Americas. Bringing together the Cornell Lab's cutting-edge science and ABC's on-the-ground approach to bird conservation, this joint effort may help present new hope for hundreds of species that journey each spring and fall between their breeding grounds in North America and wintering grounds in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The two organizations are combining efforts at a critical moment for migratory birds, at a time when some landmark conservation measures are being threatened for elimination even as environmental problems continue to mount.
Ken Rosenberg, Applied Conservation Scientist at the Cornell Lab, is leading the new partnership. "Our two organizations will provide a unified voice for bird conservation, applying the best science on the ground at important natural areas and informing policies that affect the future of bird populations," he said.
Together the partners expect to:
* Leverage data and resources from the Cornell Lab to refine and prioritize ABC's conservation strategies, including ABC BirdScapes-landscape-scale areas critically important to targeted bird species. Such data are key to answering the "Where and when?" questions that drive ABC's conservation planning.
* Identify and develop conservation strategies for key migratory stopovers. Researchers are learning that the success of migration may hinge on just two or three stopovers located strategically along the migration route for each species. One chief goal of the partnership is determining how we can best conserve these stopover sites.
* Use citizen-science data from eBird to help monitor and evaluate the success of ABC reserves and projects-the "Did it work?" piece of ABC's conservation efforts.
* Provide science support for Migratory Bird Joint Ventures, and leadership for conservation alliances such as Partners in Flight and the North American Bird Conservation Initiative's State of the Birds reports.
BOOK NOTES: SOUNDS DIFFERENT
Learning bird sounds can usually be categorized into three teaching formats: by words, similes, and/or symbols. Words can be logical or nonsensical (e.g., chick-a-dee-dee-dee or fire-fire-where-where-here-here-hurry-hurry-quick-quick). Similes help remember individual birds (e.g., Yellow Rail sounds like tapping two stones five times in sequence) or sets of birds (Scarlet Tanagers sound like American Robins with hoarse throat). While words and similes can be subjective and stylistic, even depending on your experiences and attitudes, symbols tend to be more precise, concrete, and more objective.
There are books from over a century ago with actual sheet-music notations to represent bird song. Diagrammatic shorthand has also been tried. These have not been very successful. It's the use of spectrograms (or "sonograms") of bird sounds that makes bird-sound symbols so meaningful. Basically, it's because they are solid, scientific, "translations" of actual sounds.
The popular use of spectrograms was introduced to the birding world in mid-1966, in A Guide to Field Identification: Birds of North America (Golden Press) by Chandler S Robbins, Bertel Bruun, and Herbert S Zim, and illustrated by Arthur Singer. The book was as breakthrough insofar as it covered virtually every bird in North America, with tightly collected illustrations, descriptive texts, and maps. Many species accounts also had visually accompanying sonograms. Unfortunately, most birders had no idea how to use them! So, following this otherwise popular publication, sonograms virtually disappeared from regular field guides.
This is a long introduction to emphasize the unique contribution that Nathan Pieplow has made in his new Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Eastern North America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), the latest in the "Peterson Field Guide Series." In this new guide, Pieplow presents the spectrograms of 520 species of birds found in Eastern U.S. and Canada, typically with one page per species, replete with thumbnail illustration of the bird and an accompanying range map.
The spectrograms are the meat of the pages, and once you get used to "reading" these computer-generated graphs of sound frequencies across time, you'll be well positioned to use this useful volume. Most of the book - 454 pages - is devoted to these "real spectrograms." Another vital 83 pages are devoted to a visual index, with species sounds clustered in different categories (e.g., single-note sounds, complex series, and medium to long phrases and combinations) and accompanied by "spectrogram symbols," which are artistic approximations of actual spectrogram patterns. This "index" approaches the "simile" and even the "word" methodologies that have often dominated learning bird sounds - where the sound is described as a wheeze, a churr, a laugh, or whatever.
This is not a book of mnemonics. It's on the other end of the learning-scale, and it should be appreciated as such. If you can get a grip on spectrograms, this is a book for you.
Best of all, and as a real learning experience, there are more than 5,500 audio files that accompany the book. They are available for free, streaming online with sounds and sonograms powered and delivered by the Cornell Lab's Macaulay Library:
Birders would be well advised to check out some of their favorite bird sounds from that site before buying the book. It may inspire some folks to snap up Pieplow's book immediately; but it might dissuade others.
IBA NEWS: PUGET SOUND ISSUES
There are a number of Important Bird Areas (IBAs) along the length of Puget Sound in Washington State. These include over 77,000 vital acres of open-water Marbled Murrelet habitat, significant gull and alcid colony sites (e.g., Protection Island), and over 36,000 acres of the Samish/Padilla Bay area for tens of thousands of waterfowl, shorebirds, and other species.
Unfortunately, there are three new threats to these and other Puget Sound areas. They all have to do with funding: President Trump has proposed a $28-million cut of Puget Sound restoration funding; Governor Jay Inslee is also proposing a $29-million cut to the program, and the state legislature is set to follow suit with cutbacks of its own.
Sadly, there are no real surprises, here. As usual, it's all about dollars. The state has developed a habit of spending less on its natural resource protection/restoration programs. Over the last decade, the percentage of the state's funding spent on natural resource programs - puny to begin with - has been halved. It has gone from 1.6 percent of the general fund budget to 0.8 percent.
Puget Sound restoration efforts have been going on for more than 30 years, but funding has never met the level of need for stormwater treatment, salmon recovery, wildlife management, cleanups, and research. Expected EPA and NOAA cuts would exacerbate the situation. Impacts on these IBAs are to be expected.
For all the IBA areas in Washington, see here:
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:
CHANDLER ROBBINS: RIP
Sadly, the renowned ornithologist, author, educator, and public servant, Chandler S. Robbins, passed away on 20 March. Chan, as he was known to everyone, was 98 years old.
He graduated from Harvard with a degree in physics and began teaching math and science in Vermont. Robbins joined the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1945 as a junior biologist at Patuxent Research Refuge in Maryland, where he engaged in early research on the effects of DDT and had his papers edited by his USFWS colleague, Rachel Carson. Also, Chan was the bander who first banded the Laysan Albatross named Wisdom in 1956. He re-banded her, the world's oldest known banded bird, in 2002. (See last month's E-bulletin for an update on Wisdom: http://tinyurl.com/E-bMar17 )
For many birders in the 1960s, their introduction to birding and to Robbins was through his role as lead author of A Guide to Field Identification: Birds of North America. (See Book Notes above.) In 1966, this book - simply called "the Golden Guide" by many - was a breakthrough field guide with profound features. It covered all of the continental U.S. and Canada; all illustrations were in color; birds were presented in a variety of postures and often in some habitat; text and images were on facing pages; continental range maps accompanied the text; measurements were of live birds, and those puzzling sonograms were first introduced to an eager popular audience.
In the same year that the Golden Guide appeared, Chan launched one of the most important citizen science tools that we have today, the North American Breeding Bird Survey. The creation of the BBS was not universally and instantly appreciated, however. He actually received a disciplinary letter in his work file for its premature launch!
In 1981, he co-authored the memorable paper familiar to an entire generation of ecologists: "Effects of forest fragmentation on avifauna of the eastern deciduous forest." This article led to a national effort to identify and prioritize large, still-unbroken tracts of forest while there was still time. In 2012, Chan declared that this was the work of which he was most proud.
After his 60 years of full-time work as an avian biologist at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center (he didn't retire until 2005), Chan became "Scientist Emeritus" at Patuxent where he actually continued to work. One could often find him at his office at the far end of the library, at the Gabrielson building, working on the next paper, the next study, always keeping connected, and always making a difference. Chan Robbins was at the same time a giant in the field of bird study and also a gracious, quietly creative, and unassuming colleague. The world has lost another of The Great Ones.