Excluding the records from Alaska, Yukon, and British Columbia, there are at least 45 additional records for the rest of Canada, and at least 165 records for the lower-48 United States. Many of these lower-48 records are from Oregon and Washington, and almost every winter, birders can count on at least one Brambling, often a feeder-visitor, being found somewhere in those two states. Nonetheless the bird still remains rare enough to draw the attention of active birders in the region.
Given the tilted west-to-east concentration of all these records, and the fact that the Brambling has yet to be recorded in Greenland or Newfoundland, it is likely that most or all these birds - both those found in the East as well as in the West - originate from Northeast Asia not Western Europe. This case is convincingly made by Howell, Lewington, and Russell in Rare Birds of North America (Princeton Univ. Press, 2014).
The Brambling sightings of the autumn and winter of 2014 and 2015 are also summarized in the current issue of North American Birds, with scores seen in the western Aleutians and St. Paul Island, at least two in British Columbia, two in Washington, three in California, and one each in Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, and Ontario.
This pattern makes sightings of Bramblings in the East all the more amazing. Last month there were at least two additional and equally surprising Brambling sightings, both at feeders.
The first was at Allerdale Park in Medina County, Ohio, northwest of Akron. This bird's presence was announced just after Christmas and ended up being very accessible at a residential feeder. Like many other feeder-visiting Bramblings, this individual was associating with groups of American Tree Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos. There were some compromises made on the part of visitors in terms of viewing sites, but ultimately the outcome was most positive. The bird remained through the month.
You can gain some background on the Ohio Brambling thanks to Jim McCormac, and see some photos by Leslie Sours and Alex Eberts here:
A second Brambling visited feeders in a yard in West Little Rock, Arkansas beginning about 19 January. This individual represented a surprising outlier location and was a first state record for Arkansas. The homeowner who was very gracious in allowing birders onto his property, requested that there be no weekday visitors in order not to disrupt the daily business operations at the only available parking site near the feeder. Weekend visitations worked out well, and the homeowner was pleased with the courteous behavior of visiting birders. (This story could easily have fulfilled our requirements for our regular "Access Matters" feature, but another vital issue "bumped" the story.) The bird remained for a short time, and was gone before the last weekend of the month.
You can see photos by Dan Scheiman here, along with his eBird report:
Will other Bramblings appear elsewhere in the Lower-48 or Canada later this winter? Possibly. So, keep looking!
CORN CRAKE SURPRISE
Corn Crake is a fairly small, short-billed Eurasian rail that historically was a very rare vagrant in the late fall along the East Coast of North America. European populations seriously declined in the 20th century, a decline attributed to the loss of damp grass fields and croplands. Today, the species is considered "vulnerable" in Europe. It is not surprising, therefore, that there is only a handful of records in North America ranging from Newfoundland to New York since the early 1960s.
Accordingly, it is amazing that a Corn Crake appeared last month in eastern Pennsylvania.
On New Year's Day, at Twin Brooks Farm in Tyler Hill, Pennsylvania - a farm run by Cassie Schweighofer and Erik Roneker - their cats brought home a thin and weak brownish rail. The cats serve on rodent patrol near the house, barns, and winter livestock-loafing areas at the family farm. Unfortunately, it died before Cassie and Erik could send the bird to a rehabilitation facility.
After circulating photos of the unidentified rail among friends and acquaintances, Lauren Flesher and Benjamin Van Doren, it was determined that the bird was, indeed, a Corn Crake. The specimen was thoughtfully donated by Cassie and Erik to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia where it was prepared and identified as a male of the year.
One wonders how long this bird had been in North America, especially since almost all previous records are from coastal areas in late fall. One might also wonder: How many of these shy and normally very hard to flush rails, could actually be making landfall in North America, and yet regularly be undetected?
DEAD MURRES PILE UP
Dead seabirds - mostly Common Murres - have been appearing on Alaska shorelines since last August, but the record numbers seen last month in the Prince William Sound area offer a serious warning. It started with hundreds of Common Murres that seabird biologist David Irons first found dead near the town of Whittier. The dead birds had apparently starved.
"We have never found close to 8,000 dead birds on a one-mile-long beach before," Irons said. "It is an order of magnitude larger than any records that I am aware of."
Since the event, fellow biologist Tamara Zeller, from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and others have been boating around Prince William Sound and walking beaches in search of other dead or sick murres. On 7 January, her count started with 98 birds on the water and 284 on the shore. At the end of the day, her tally was a startling 3,000.
Heather Renner, a supervisory biologist at the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, said the local die-off is probably part of a much larger event that began in August. "It's hard to know how many birds have died because Alaska is so big, and there are so many remote areas," Renner said. Still, Renner estimates that at least 100,000 Common Murres have probably died.
The vast majority of the bird deaths have been attributed to starvation; tests on 100 carcasses showed that almost all the murres were emaciated. The culprit is likely a lack of adequate food. "The fish that they eat tend to have a narrow band of water temperatures they can live in," Irons said. "If the temperature gets too warm or too cold the fish disappear."
This is what is happening in waters off Alaska. Since 2013, an expanse of seawater that is 2 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit above average has stretched from Asia to North America. Scientists have called this zone "the blob," and they are studying it closely.
Die-offs are not uncommon. One in 1993 was estimated to kill 100,000 murres. Another in 1997 affected several types of seabirds. At the time, scientists also focused on the lack of food and associated warm waters.
But Irons and Renner say this die-off is different in its scope and the persistence of the warm water blob that may have caused it.
More details are available from this CNN coverage:
BOOK NOTES: BIRDING SKILLS
How many in-depth birding books geared to perfecting your skills do we really need? Apparently, there is a continual need, and the books continue to regularly appear.
The latest entry in this genre is Better Birding (Princeton University Press, 2016) by George L. Armistead and Brian L. Sullivan. Like authors of other similar books, these authors review clusters of troublesome species-groups, including eiders, godwits, swifts, yellow-bellied kingbirds, and more, teasing out ID elements for each group that will enrich considerably your birding experience.
Unlike some of the other books of this sort, this one is particularly reader-friendly, with an admirable tone floating somewhere between charming familiarity and firm instruction. Moreover, the hundreds of photos are high-quality and extremely helpful, with equally helpful accompanying captions. Some of the more interesting and helpful photos, as well as the Introduction section, are seemingly Richard-Crossley-esque. In other words, some of the most the creative photos are reconstructed in natural settings and organized in ways that highlight the most important features of each of the species in question.
Beyond the core ID information, almost all the chapters contain eye-opening "Natural History Notes" and "Taxonomic Notes" that significantly add to the reader's appreciation and understanding of the species involved. In short, Better Birding is an outstanding work and a valuable contribution for birders at all levels.
While the book is a great resource for perfecting one's individual birding skills, if you are looking to make birding a general pursuit, you may be disappointed, because the title of the book is somewhat misleading. We addressed this same concern in March, 2012, suggesting that being a "better birder" is not simply an individual endeavor driven by becoming more proficient at identifying birds in the field. The effort may certainly start there, but, surely, it should not end there. Betting birding ought to include two essential ongoing activities: sharing the birds with others and actually doing something to save them. See what we wrote here:
Except for a brief, if not tangential reference to eBird, these concepts are not discussed in Better Birding. This is unfortunate, since if birding has a future it surely needs to grow beyond the very personal.
ACCESS MATTERS: LOST ACCESS AT MALHEUR NWR
One of the most outlandish aspects of the seizure of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by armed occupiers at the start of January was the image of an American flag obscuring the official welcome sign at the entrance to the refuge. The irony was captured by David Houghton, the president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, when he wrote: "American flags fly proudly at all 563 national wildlife refuges, signaling that these places are owned and managed by and for all Americans. Like all national wildlife refuges, Malheur is public land. The sign that is obscured reads "Welcome to Your National Wildlife Refuge"- it is a place for all of us to enjoy and we all benefit from its many natural resources. Only now, armed occupiers restrict the entrance to this public resource."
Attempts to seize any part of the refuge are attempts to take valued property away from the American people. The Malheur seizure was doubly ironic, since in 2013 the refuge adopted a long-term Comprehensive Conservation Plan through an inclusive process that got agreement from varied stakeholders - e.g., local communities, the Burns Piute tribe, multiple conservation groups, ranchers, and other business interests - interested in refuge priorities, goals, and timelines.
Management of the refuge for wildlife and the public involves 500+ water control structures, an invasive carp problem that is detrimental to bird productivity, the spread of invasive plants, elevated water temperatures, in addition to mounting budgetary constraints impacting all of these.
When birders - along with wildlife photographers, hunters, anglers, environmental educators, and others - insist that access matters, it means real access to enjoy, appreciate, and conserve well-managed resources for birds, other wildlife, and people.
Following the arrest of some of the ringleaders involved in the seizure, the first real steps to bring this occupation to a conclusion have taken place. One death in the process was tragic. But careful efforts must continue to empty the refuge of everyone who continues to illegally occupy the land, restricting management and access.
Whatever the immediate outcome of the seizure, and as justice is served, there are long-term lessons to be learned here. Among them is that the foundations of our natural heritage are inextricably intertwined with appropriate access to these remarkable lands.
IBA NEWS: MALHEUR AGAIN
During the Malheur seizure, the mainstream media seemed to have had a difficult time telling the difference between BLM lands and National Wildlife Refuges, and between National Parks and National Forests. And as far as delivering a coherent message on the origins and purposes of these public lands, few in the mainstream media were able to measure the real value of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Indeed, by the third week of the seizure, some of the media morphed the site into something called a "federal wildlife refuge."
This suggests that appreciation of Malheur, specifically as an Important Bird Area (IBA), is in order. Quite simply, Malheur NWR is a spectacular place for birds and birding. Even at its very beginning, when bird conservationists William Finley and Herman Bohlman helped convince President Theodore Roosevelt into establishing the refuge in 1908, the area needed dutiful care and attention. It was created "as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds." The "Lake Malheur Reservation," as it was originally called, was the 19th of 51 wildlife refuges created by Teddy Roosevelt during his tenure as President. See this summary on efforts that inspired the refuge's creation:
During the breeding season, this IBA may host up to a fifth of the world's population of White-faced Ibis, the highest known densities of Willow Flycatcher, and one of the highest Breeding Bird Survey counts for the watch-listed Brewer's Sparrow. Other breeding birds in jeopardy at Malheur include Western Snowy Plover (200 pairs), Long-billed Curlew, Short-eared Owl, Greater Sage-Grouse, Bobolink, and Trumpeter Swan. Serious numbers of American White Pelicans, Cinnamon Teal, Redheads, and Greater Sandhill Cranes (20% of Oregon's breeding population) also breed there, along with up to 1,300 pairs of Franklin's Gulls and 3,000 pairs of Black Terns. Migrant highlights are dominated by the waterfowl, with over a third of the world's population of Ross' Geese, a significant proportion of Green-winged Teal, American Wigeon, Northern Shovelers, Canvasbacks, and Ruddy Ducks; and hundreds of thousands of waterfowl other species (e.g., Snow Geese, Mallards, Northern Pintails). Shorebird concentrations have included 25,000 Western Sandpipers, 35,000 Long-billed Dowitchers, 15,000 Wilson's Phalaropes, 15,000 American Avocets, and hundreds of Pectoral Sandpipers and Black-necked Stilts. Golden Eagles and Prairie Falcons are present year-round. Finally, the refuge headquarters area itself is well known as an important fall and spring landbird migrant trap. And the list could go on.
The acquisition of the refuge itself is a significant story. Claims that refuge lands were "stolen" from ranchers are false. (If any group has prior claims to the NWR, it is the Paiute Indian Tribe.) The original core of the refuge dates back to 1908, and other portions have been added since: 31% of the refuge from the public domain ("unclaimed federal lands"), 30% transferred from another federal agency, 26% from Duck-Stamp/MBCF dollars, 13% purchased via other means, and less than 1% donated to the refuge system.
For details on Malheur NWR's Status as an IBA, 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:
REFUGE UPDATE UPDATED
While on the subject of NWRs, a notice on news from refuges is appropriate. Some readers may be familiar with Refuge Update, the printed bimonthly news bulletin from the National Wildlife Refuge System.
It's usually about 20 pages long, packed with good information on refuges, much of it on birds. For example, the January/February issue has articles on enriching habitat for Roseate Terns in the Northeast, Red-cockaded Woodpecker recovery on refuges, and two refuges making a special effort to reduce bird collisions.
Refuge Update has been functioning well as a hard-copy newsletter since the January/February 2004 issue. But starting with the May/June 2016 issue, it will appear only electronically. This should allow for longer articles, more fine images, and a saving of trees!
If you want to get on the mailing list for Refuge Update, send your e-mail address to:
TWO WHOOPING CRANES SHOT IN TEXAS
In the 1940s, there were fewer than 20 Whooping Cranes left in the wild. While the recovery of this species has been impressive, problems with the migratory wild population and experimental flocks persist. Unfortunately, over the past five years, more than 20 Whooping Cranes have actually been shot and killed in the United States. We have written about this ongoing problem before, most recently last April:
Last month, on 10 January, two Whooping Cranes were shot in Texas. An 18-year-old male from Southeast Texas, T. J. Frederick, was charged with a Class B Misdemeanor offense. These birds were members of the experimental Louisiana flock which consists of 44 birds.
The two cranes were killed in Jefferson County, Texas, in an area about 115 miles west of Louisiana's White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area, where state and federal biologists have released more than 60 Whooping Cranes in an effort to establish a self-sustaining non-migratory flock. The two killed were a male and female, nearly two years old, probably too young to have paired for life. They and two other Louisiana cranes had been in that part of Texas for more than eight months, according to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
Some observers have suggested that agencies responsible for the Whooping Crane recovery could better help protect the cranes if efforts were increased to educate the hunting public and to let locals know when the cranes are visiting certain areas, especially when they are uncommon visitors to those areas. Environmental lawyer, Jim Blackburn, commented, "On the one hand, we can't make these birds simply stay where we put them because if they want to fly away, they fly. But on the other hand there was a lot of money put into these birds, and that money is now gone. The real question this brings up is what can we do better? What can we learn from this?"
Sara Zimorski, a biologist involved in the Louisiana Whooping Crane project, said, "While it is incredibly frustrating to lose two more birds, we will not be discouraged in our efforts to try and recover this endangered species."
Work continues to help the cranes. For example, interested parties can access information on how to report suspicious or illegal shooting behavior, receive a comparative waterbird identification guide, and join others in pledging support for the cranes through the International Crane Foundation:
MORE MIA BIRD SMUGGLING
On 9 January, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents took a man into custody at the Miami International Airport. They said he was trying to smuggle live birds in his pants. Actually, six birds were packed into individual canisters in a fanny-pack, and three more birds in his groin area. The birds included Cuban Grassquits, Yellow-faced Grassquits, and Blue Grosbeaks.
Details can be found here:
The man was a passenger on a flight from Havana to Miami. The birds were turned over to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Miami quarantine station. It is a violation of federal law to smuggle live birds into the U.S. The wild-bird cage-trade is also nominally against the law in Cuba.
The issue of potentially released Cuban birds - smuggled into the U.S. - was raised most recently in the E-bulletin of June 2014:
We also wrote a year ago on the advantages of expanding the Migratory Bird Treaty to Cuba:
TIP OF THE MONTH: FOUR SIMPLE WORDS
Great Backyard Bird Count... so, there you go!
We have mentioned the role of the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) in the past, but it deserves another reminder. It's a free, fun, and simple, event that engages bird watchers at all levels to count birds and help create a real-time snapshot of bird populations. Participants are asked to count birds for as little as 15 minutes (or as long as they wish) on one or more days of the extended four-day weekend in February and to report their sightings online.
Each data submission during the GBBC helps researchers at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society learn more about how birds are doing, and how to protect them and the environment we share.
The 19th annual GBBC will be held Friday, February 12, through Monday, February 15, 2016.
You can find out more on getting started in the GBBC here:
VERN LAUX: RIP
One of a kind... That's the best way to describe the late E. Vernon Laux (b. 1955) who passed away on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, 21 January 2016.
Variously known as an indefatigable field companion, an outstanding educator, an entertaining columnist, and radio commentator, Vern was a raconteur par excellence. His enthusiasm for life, for birding, and for his many friends were infectious, and his field skills were nothing short of amazing. While he may be known to some as the man in 2004 who put the first Red-footed Falcon in North America onto the pages of The New York Times and on the evening TV-network news, to others he was the weekly purveyor of information about birds in Massachusetts and beyond via his newspaper columns and radio broadcasts. But Vern was much more than this. Ultimately, he was a quintessential ambassador and advocate for birds, with a personality bigger than life. In the words of one close friend, Vern was a combination of Keith Richards, John Belushi, and a defensive lineman for the New England Patriots.
For a full tribute see here: