While on his way home from work late in the day on Saturday, 5 December, Ben Morrison found an intriguing-looking gull at Springfield Lake in Summit County, Ohio, just outside of Akron. The gull was fairly large, dark-mantled, and greenish-yellow-legged. It looked vaguely similar to a Great Black-backed Gull. But not quite. The word went out; later photos and videos were circulated among experts; the conclusions came in. This was, indeed, a rarity: a Kelp Gull.
The Kelp Gull is a species that is largely a resident of the Southern Hemisphere (South America, s. Africa, Australia, and New Zealand) that has also been expanding its range. In North America it is a casual or very rare visitor, with now over two dozen reports, starting in the late 1980s. Sites in North America where the species has been found are widespread and unpredictable: these localities have included Louisiana, Texas, Maryland, Indiana, Florida, Colorado, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Ontario. The species has appeared at all seasons of the year, too. Basically, one never knows where and when a Kelp Gull is likely to show up. It could be on the Gulf coast, the Atlantic Coast, at the Great Lakes, or inland! This first record for Ohio is consistent with previous unpredictable occurrences.
We previously wrote about a famous Kelp Gull in Maryland exactly a year ago:
The original sighting of the Kelp Gull at Springfield Lake, at Lakemore Recreational Park, was on the roof of the Springfield Lake Roller Rink. It seemed as if the bird was preparing to spend the night there roosting with many Herring and Ring-billed gulls. When the gulls left the roof in the early morning, the situation eventually became a predictable routine, with birders usually showing up in the late afternoon or early morning to see if the Kelp Gull was arriving or departing the site. And for at least some observers, this worked!
Some days the bird would fit this pattern, and other days it wouldn't. Where it spent the middle of the day remained a mystery, although some folks speculated that it joined other gulls at shopping mall parking lots or landfills in search of food. Many birders had to make multiple visits to the lake before intersecting with the activity pattern of the gull. Mostly however, the bird was observed during the first and last minutes of daylight. But some days it was missed entirely.
Local residents seemed to be interested in all the hubbub. And the mayor of Lakemore, a very small town, thought the activity was great.
The Kelp Gull was present at least into 28 December.
See the Akron Beacon Journal, for the story and some photos of birders and the bird:
TAKE MONEY FROM THE POOR TO HELP FERAL CATS?
We almost missed this important story on feral cats, but it's not too late to inform readers of the broader implications.
In New York, there is an Animal Population Control Program (APCP) that is run through the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. The program provides low-cost spay/neuter services for dogs and cats to state residents who receive public assistance or who have adopted an animal from a qualified nonprofit or government organization. The program is currently funded mostly through a creative surcharge on dog license fees.
There was a recent attempt to pass a law that would have dedicated this public funding to feline Trap, Neuter, and Release (TNR) programs throughout the state. This would have taken up to 20 percent of the state's APCP fund and directed it toward non-profits engaged in TNR, a growing problem in many New York towns and cities. And, of course, free-roaming cats - neutered or not - kill billions of birds across the U.S. each year.
A broad coalition of interests, including the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), Audubon New York, New York birders, animal welfare organizations, and sportsmen's groups, opposed the TNR legislation, submitting numerous letters, emails, and phone calls expressing serious concerns.
If signed into law, this would have allowed funding to go to groups that do TNR and would have essentially reduce funds available to spay and neuter pets owned by low-income New Yorkers.
Fortunately, in late October, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo vetoed the bill. The governor cited a number of reasons for his veto: 1) the bill diverted funds from existing and effective programs; 2) the practice of releasing feral cats into the environment, a core part of TNR programs, is prohibited by New York law (shelters cannot release an animal other than by adoption or to an owner claiming it); 3) scientific evidence indicates that TNR does not reduce feral cat populations, and 4) there are negative impacts of feral cats on wildlife, "including threatened and endangered species, habitats, and food sources for native predators."
In the meantime, over 500 municipalities in the U.S. currently are involved at some level to support TNR, and moves to fund TNR are continuing elsewhere.
See here a press release from ABC on the New York governor's veto:
IBA NEWS: PAINTED BUNTING MANIA
When a real regional rarity appears at an Important Bird Area (IBA), and when that IBA is also an urban park, it draws special attention to the bird and the place. This is exactly what happened when Keir Randall, of Brooklyn, New York, found a colorful male Painted Bunting at Prospect Park at the end of November. This is the first male Painted Bunting that has ever been recorded in Brooklyn, and only one of about 10 individuals of the species to have been found in New York City since the late 1920s. Although there was a Painted Bunting seen in Brooklyn in March of 1999, it was a female, not a multicolored male like the one that has drawn the awe and attention of so many New Yorkers.
The park is a genuine avian oasis in The Big Apple, so when this bird appeared, New Yorkers responded. The media coverage included the New York Post, The New York Times, New York Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, Fox News, CBS News, WPIX news and WOR news. (A few links are listed below.) Soon many inquisitive New Yorkers started appearing at the site to see what the fuss was all about.
The bird's accustomed sites, near the park's LeFrak Center Skating Rink and near the plantings adjacent to the center's green roof, is a real success story. It was an ambitious restoration by the Prospect Park Alliance, transforming a 300-spot parking lot into an additional three acres of green space and wildlife habitat featuring all native grasses, wildflowers and shrubbery - a perfect microhabitat for migrating birds.
In this case, there have been at least three ancillary benefits that have been good for the birds and good for educating the public about birds. First, the park authority had to rope off parts of the zone - along with signage that says "please stay on the path" - related to the plantings in the immediate area and on this attractive green roof habitat. These were overwhelmingly respected by courteous observers. Second, there were bird feeders set up a short distance away on Breeze Hill that attracted other bird activity. This served as an example for the many curious visitors to the park and the bird. And third, perhaps the deepest management lesson occurred when a free roaming cat in the park began skulking the Painted Bunting's favored habitat. After the president of the Brooklyn Bird Club, Rob Bate, was sent details on the cat, he alerted park officials who approved the trapping of the cat. The Prospect Park Alliance's Marty Woess successfully trapped the culprit in a Have-a-Heart trap, chagrined but unharmed. The kitty was then taken to a local animal rescue center for rehabbing and adoption.
The proper handling of an attractive rarity in an urban park that is also and IBA can be full of lessons for us all, including those of us who wish to bring bird awareness to folks who live in urban areas.
And, yes, the male Painted Bunting stayed in place for the Christmas Bird Count for the Brooklyn count-circle. In fact, it remained for the rest of December.
You can read about the initial NYC mania over the male Painted Bunting in an article in the New York Post (2 December) here:
You can also check out The New York Times piece (2 December) :
And Fox News had nice coverage (3 December):
Learn more about the Prospect Park Alliance's environmental preservation work and about birdwatching activities in the Park:
And read how Prospect Park ranks as an IBA:
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:
THE CBC BONUS FACTOR
And speaking of birds seen on Christmas Bird Counts, we sometimes have this added bonus when considering surprise birds on CBCs.
Invariably, CBCs cover some areas not regularly birded during much of the year. A little park, a small pond, a remote field, a backyard feeding-station, or a nearly-forgotten woodlot may all be neglected for much of the year. But these very locations may command inspection during the CBC period, if only to secure full coverage in the 15-mile diameter CBC circle.
This is when, say, a Spotted Towhee could be discovered on a CBC in Pennsylvania, a Brown Thrasher in Arizona, a Varied Thrush in Wisconsin, or a Snowy Owl almost anywhere.
It's the CBC bonus factor, and it happens every year.
A couple of surprise bonuses this year specifically deserve mention here. Both of these bonus birds were Eurasian thrushes far, far away from their expected winter ranges, and both discovered on Christmas Bird Counts. The first was a Redwing, found in Victoria, British Columbia. This is, a species found very rarely in Atlantic Canada, and only a few times in the west (e.g., Alaska, Washington, and British Columbia). The bird stayed in the Vistoria neighborhood through December. The fascinating story about its discovery can be read here:
The second bonus bird was also a Eurasian thrush - a Fieldlfare discovered on the 19 December Missoula, Montana, CBC. It was found in a suburban yard near some crabapple trees. Somewhat like the Redwing, this species has been found rarely in the Northeast, with only a couple of records elsewhere, from Alaska, British Columbia, and an odd occurrence in Minnesota. It stayed in the area through 22 December. Who could have imagined a Fieldfare occurring in Montana?
These are stellar examples of the wonder and surprise of the CBC bonus factor.
BOOK NOTES: SEA DUCKS
We know less about sea ducks than another other group of waterfowl. When it comes to their numbers, habitat requirements, and response to resource exploitation, researchers and conservationists still need to fill major gaps with information. Fortunately, the last decade has seen a significant increase in the attention directed toward sea ducks, the Mergini tribe. This has been driven, in large part, by concerns over population declines in several sea duck species and populations. Ecology and Conservation of North American Sea Ducks (CRC Press) assembled by a skilled five-member team of editors, is a wonderful contribution to this subject. A publication of the Cooper Ornithological Society, the book is an invaluable resource for sea duck aficionados who wish to examine in detail the 15 extant species of sea ducks in North America. More than two dozen authors have contributed to the 15 interrelated chapters, and many of the authors have been working closely with the Sea Duck Joint Venture for years.
The book is not cheap - with a current list price of $120 -it is nonetheless the first comprehensive assessment of the status, population dynamics, and demography for these birds. Some of the more interesting chapters, each written by experts in the field, include topics covering the need for better monitoring, infectious diseases, contaminants, foraging behavior, migration strategies, harvest, habitats, and future direction for study.
The book captures the current state of knowledge for these waterfowl which is clearly a prerequisite to moving our understanding of these fascinating ducks forward.
TIP OF THE MONTH: TAKE ON THE DUCKS
And speaking of ducks... January is a grand time to get into viewing and photographing ducks. This is probably true regardless of where you may live.
Ducks exhibit what seems like a seasonal reverse in when they wear their various plumages. Specifically, ducks reach their most striking and classic plumage in the fall, and pair-up in winter - a pattern that seems contrary to many other species. Appearance and courtship activity among amorous ducks can be especially interesting at this time of year.
If you got new photographic equipment during the holidays, this is a fine time to try it out, and waterfowl make ideal subjects at this time of year.
Ducks also offer new birders a great way to become introduced to birds. Depending on the place and time, ducks can be relatively easy to study.
So get out there and take on the ducks!
MICROBEADS ON THE WAY OUT
Recently, tiny plastic microbeads have appeared almost everywhere in hundreds of toiletries, facial scrubs, body washes, and toothpastes. Once these miniscule beads slip through North America's water treatment plants, they accumulate in rivers and the Great Lakes, then flow downstream toward the ocean.
They apparently resemble fish food and are readily ingested by fish, as investigations in the Great Lakes have shown over the years. The microbeads have been known to absorb, or serve as transport vehicles for hitchhiking toxins. Ultimately fish-eating waterfowl, gulls, terns, cormorants, herons, kingfishers, Ospreys, and Bald Eagles become part of this food-chain.
Major cosmetic companies (e.g. Johnson & Johnson, Unilever, and Procter & Gamble) have been working on bead phase-outs; nine states have already made phase-out the law. Last month, fortunately, both the U.S. House and Senate passed, and President Obama signed, a piece of legislation to completely eliminate the beads in the U.S. by 1 July 2017.
More details on these microbeads, the toxins, and their impact can be found here:
ACCESS MATTERS: THE TRANSPORTATION BILL
Why should people interested in birds, bird conservation, and birding opportunities also be interested in the multi-year Federal Transportation Bill, packed as it is with massive road-building, huge bull-dozing efforts, and billions of tons of concrete projects? Good question! But the same question could have been asked concerning the Federal Farm Bill in the mid-1980s, overflowing with agricultural subsidies, land-transformation assistance, and plenty of pork.
And the answer would be very similar: because the bill also contains crucial elements - non-dominant elements, admittedly - that have become important for wildlife, wild places, and outdoor wildlife activities.
At the beginning of December, Congress passed a long-overdue transportation bill, previously stuck in political gridlock and bumping along through inadequate short-term funding measures. The new bill, called the FAST Act (Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act), is a five-year, $305-billion piece of legislation that authorizes America's highway and other transportation projects.
Deep inside the FAST Act there are significant multi-million-dollar programs that are central to public-land improved access, alternative transportation, and innovative trail-networks.
Without getting too deep into the details, suffice it to say that there are at least three significant programs for federal lands funded in the transportation bill, and while the programs will see immediate increases, their gains are not always commensurate with the needs. Moreover, opportunities to divert some of these funds remained in the final version of FAST.
Nonetheless, the outcome is very hopeful, including community and regional opportunities. For example, some beneficial changes sought for trail and active-transportation networks were included, such as help for relatively low-cost local-government projects (those with a $10-million threshold) and improving financing accessibility.
Both National Parks and National Wildlife Refuges got funding to address their costly backlogs of road projects. The National Parks got an 18 percent increase in funding (to over $300 million annually), while the Refuges remained essentially the same (at $30 million). There was also funding for other highway funding for other federal lands often accessed by birders, such as at National Forests.
At about 80 National Parks, the funding will also be directed to maintain systems of transportation, traditional and alternate, including bike paths, ferries, shuttles, and more. At NWRs, the funds are to be used on important road, bridge, and trail projects, even to develop road-associated wildlife-mitigation structures. This is all intended to improve the visitor experience in light of core wildlife management needs.
Birders and birds should benefit, and that's what counts.
For an assessment from the viewpoint of National Wildlife Refuge support, see this statement from the National Wildlife Refuge Association:
You can also review a National Parks perspective here:
And a trails orientation here:
NORTHERN SPOTTED OWL TROUBLES
In early December, a major demographic study on the condition of Northern Spotted Owls appeared in The Condor. Produced by a team of federal scientists, this research indicated that a range-wide decline of nearly 4 percent per year was estimated for the owls from 1985 to 2013. This was based data from 11 study areas across Washington, Oregon, and northern California,
Specifically, Northern Spotted Owl populations declined 55-77 percent in Washington, 31-68 percent in Oregon, and 32-55 percent in California. In addition, population declines are now occurring in study areas in southern Oregon and northern California that were previously experiencing little to no detectable decline through 2009.
While they do occur in young forests in some areas, these owls are strongly associated with old growth forest in most of their Pacific Northwest range. In response to the listing of the Northern Spotted Owl as Threatened in 1990, the Northwest Forest Plan was launched in 1994 to create a series of forest reserves to protect existing habitat and develop future habitat for the Northern Spotted Owl. Those future reserves are vital. Because the owl is highly dependent on older forest, once the older forests are logged it can take many decades before suitable habitat can regrow.
Dr. Katie Dugger, at the USGS Oregon Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit and lead author on the report, said that the amount of suitable habitat required by Northern Spotted Owls for "nesting and roosting is important because spotted owl survival, colonization of empty territories, and number of young produced tends to be higher in areas with larger amounts of suitable habitat, at least on some study areas."
Many conservationists have concluded that the Northwest Forest Plan has at least successfully slowed the decline of Northern Spotted Owls, but the current plan may still not be enough to stabilize the population.
The presence of Barred Owls, expanding into the range of Northern Spotted Owls and competing with them, is another complication. Removing Barred Owls has been promoted as a way to address the problems confronting Northern Spotted Owls. We covered this controversial activity in August 2013:
In one study area in California, where Barred Owl removal began in 2009, the long-term population declines of Spotted Owls were only 9 percent. It remains to be see if this Barred Owl removal has any positive long-term consequences. Moreover, the data indicate that the two species can actually coexist where there is sufficient high-quality habitat available.
Protecting remaining Northern Spotted Owl habitat at least means the maintenance and expansion the reserve network of the Northwest Forest Plan. A large amount of this habitat should eventually become available if the Northwest Forest Plan is allowed to continue working to restore the old growth forest ecosystem. Preserving as much high-quality habitat as possible on non-federal lands is also a necessity.
For more information on this problem see this news item from the American Bird Conservancy:
and this article from the Willits News (from in Mendocino County, California):
We had an unfortunate typo last month. The birder who had that accident on the jetty at Barnegat Inlet, New Jersey, in March, 2009 was Howard B. Eskin, not Howard Beskin. It has been corrected in our archives.