On 6 May, a Bahama Woodstar was reported at Bill Baggs State Park, in Miami, Florida. The Bahamian hummingbird was said to be feeding on a Jamaica Dogwood just outside the lighthouse compound at the park. There are only about four previous reliable records of Bahama Woodstar in Florida, with the most recent dating back to 1981. (Amazingly however, there is an astounding non-Florida exception, a woodstar that visited a backyard hummingbird feeder in Denver, Pennsylvania, in late April, 2014.)
Unfortunately, the recent Miami report was soon retracted when the bird proved to be a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.
Curiously, the false alarm may have alerted and reminded birders in Florida that the next Bahama Woodstar was long overdue in Florida.
Remarkably, on the late afternoon of 14 May, Mitchell Harris, birding the Maritime Hammock Sanctuary in southern Brevard County found what he believed was an immature male Bahama Woodstar feeding near the entrance to the sanctuary! It was visiting a fruiting fig and a Flame Vine bush, and this time, the identification was correct.
The rare hummingbird would visit the flowers about every 20-40 minutes in the morning, with more infrequent visits in the afternoon. To access Mitchell Harris's eBird report and accompanying photographs see:
The Maritime Hammock Sanctuary is actually associated with the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, a partnership of federal, state, county, and privately-owned lands on the barrier island. It is also the nation's most significant land conservation and acquisition initiative to protect sea turtle nesting beaches. The Maritime Hammock Sanctuary is a county property, administered by the Brevard Environmentally Endangered Lands Program.
This portion of the protected area, a lush 150-acre sanctuary, is a bit off the regular birding-route, but it features a hiking trail with bridges, a boardwalk over wetland areas, and a deck over a marsh pond. A portion of the sanctuary was once the site of an exotic plant nursery and an orange grove, where some of those plants still remain. The site was also the location of the only verified and photographed Red-legged Thrush in the U.S. in late May 2010. This should serve as a reminder that some less-birded sites are sometimes more than worthy of regular coverage!
RUNNERS-UP AMONG THE RARITIES
It was hard to choose the rarity of the month for May, if only because the outer limits of Alaska often start producing astounding rarities at this season. So far this spring, Alaska did not disappoint. Consider for example Common Greenshank, Far-eastern Curlew, Wood Sandpiper, and Hawfinch on Adak Island, White-tailed Eagle, Gray Wagtail, Eye-browed Thrush, and Olive-backed Pipit at St. Paul Island, Common Sandpiper, Marsh Sandpiper, and Pallas's Bunting at Gambell on St. Lawrence Island, and Great Knot at Nome.
A rarity to be looked for in Alaska, Little Bunting, perhaps from Siberia, was also a one-day wonder... in Arizona! It appeared, and was photographed, on 27 May at Slaughter Ranch, in Cochise County, 15 miles east of Douglas.
But this spring it was in Newfoundland that the major rarity contender made an appearance when Ian Jones and Jeannine Winkel discovered a Common Swift on the evening of 20 May at Quidi Vidi Lake in St. John's, Newfoundland. This represented the second record of Common Swift in Newfoundland, the first individual having appeared last July. The May bird was only the 7th record of the species in all of North America. Curiously, the Common Swift is an amazingly regular vagrant to Iceland, where there are almost 340 accepted records. The swift in St. John's continued flying high over the lake along with swallows until at least the morning of 26 May.
MOVING TOWARD SAFER FEDERAL BUILDINGS
In a refreshing move of bipartisanship, Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) and Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) recently introduced the Federal Bird-Safe Buildings Act. The bill (H.R. 2542) is designed to amend title 40 of the United States Code to direct the General Services Administration (GSA) to incorporate bird-safe building materials and design features into public Federal buildings.
It is believed that as many as a billion birds a year currently die in collisions with buildings in North America alone. Achieving city-by-city, county-by-county, or even state-by-state compliance in assuring bird-safe design and seasonal lighting is an excellent conservation approach, and so is asking for state-government, company-wide, and now Federal policy to engage in this endeavor.
The bill calls for each public building constructed, acquired, or significantly altered by the General Services Administration to incorporate, to the maximum extent possible, bird-safe building materials and design features. Many bird-friendly design techniques - such as installing screens or grilles on windows, and minimizing the use of glass on lower floors - are already used in some federal buildings to control heat and light or building security. Where practicable, this new legislation would require GSA to take similar actions on existing buildings.
"By pursuing cost-neutral, responsible, and realistic solutions we can play an important role in preserving the intrinsic, cultural, and ecological value birds bring to our society," Rep. Quigley said. "This bill will put an emphasis on constructing buildings with bird-safe materials and design features, which in turn will help eradicate unnecessary bird deaths caused by collisions with glass."
You can read a statement by Rep. Quigley here:
And also see comments from the American Bird Conservancy here:
IBA NEWS: INDIAN RIVER LAGOON IN DEEP TROUBLE
The Indian River Lagoon covers over a third of Florida's east coast, an estuary touching a variety of recreational boating and fishing facilities, tourism sites, golf courses, housing developments, and a mix of islands and marshes that sustain a wide diversity of plant and animal life. The lagoon spans over 150 miles from Ponce de Leon Inlet in Volusia County to the southern boundary of Martin County. As such, it touches multiple Important Bird Areas (IBAs), ranging from the small Volusia County Colony Islands to the expansive Cape Canaveral-Merritt Island NWR complex. And birds, including shorebirds, pelicans, long-legged waders, gulls, and terns, have been inhabiting this lengthy lagoon and its environs for as long as anyone can remember.
Unfortunately, the Indian River Lagoon has also repeatedly been plagued by algae blooms, increased pollution, and fish kills. In fact, the shallow-water estuary is in deep trouble. The culprits seem to be a combination of farm runoff and a huge influx of people that have consistently delivered lawn fertilizer and other pollutants into the lagoon. Experienced observers are distressed to see the lagoon's wildlife diversity threatened in ways similar to problems encountered in the Chesapeake Bay, Lake Erie, and parts of the Gulf of Mexico.
The lagoon's woes are threatening the region's $2.5 billion recreation, fishing and tourism economy, along with dismaying kayak tour operators, restaurateurs, charter boat captains, and organizers of birding festivals.
The problems have intensified over the last decade as central Florida's population has swelled faster than that of anywhere else in the state. The waterway has also been polluted indirectly since the mid-20th century by fertilizer runoff from agricultural activities around Lake Okeechobee. The runoff drains into the lagoon during heavy rains, although parts of the lagoon still remained largely healthy until the most recent building boom. Since 2000, more than 1.5 million people moved into the six counties along the lagoon, and three Orlando-area counties also drain into Lake Okeechobee or directly into the lagoon. Water quality data analyzed by the media has shown that the average level of phosphorous - a byproduct of fertilizers and human waste that increase algae blooms - rose nearly 75 percent between 2000 and 2016.
According to state data, in 2011 an algae "super bloom" killed more than 1 million fish and other animals in the Indian River Lagoon. Intense algal blooms have occurred each year since. In 2016, baby oysters died in huge numbers, doubly alarming since oysters filter the water when they are feeding. Last year "was the icing on the cake because the fish kill didn't happen in remote parts of the river where people don't see it," said Laurilee Thompson, from the Dixie Crossroads, a seafood restaurant in Titusville, and a driving force behind the popular Space Coast Bird and Wildlife Festival annually held in the area in late January.
Despite federal and state governments' spending hundreds of millions of dollars to preserve the lagoon in recent years, the repair efforts can barely keep up with the damage. In Brevard County, stretching along almost half of the lagoon, the experience last March at least encouraged voters to approve a sales tax to raise more than $300 million over 10 years for cleanup, including upgrading wastewater treatment and the removal of thousands of old septic tanks. While awareness and concern is increasing, the race is on to catch up to the damage already done to the habitat and wildlife, including the birds living along the lagoon's IBAs.
See here for a listing of Florida IBAs, including those in proximity to the Indian River Lagoon:
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:
BOOK NOTES: AUDUBON AGAIN?
Is it time for yet another biography of John James Audubon? Gregory Nobles, with his John James Audubon: The Nature of the American (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), believes it is.
The last meaningful biography of the bird-study pioneer and artist was by Richard Rhodes - John James Audubon: The Making of an American (Knopf, 2004) - which stressed the peculiar American character of the master, maturing at the same time as our country, and adapting and discovering identity along with the country he came to call home.
In this latest bio, Gregory Nobles delves at least a layer deeper by showing readers how Audubon's greatest creation was himself. Audubon was in pursuit of popular acclaim as an artist, as well as a scientist. Nobles deals with Audubon's personal and public successes and failures, as well as his fame and ruin. During his colorful life, Audubon successfully fostered a remarkably bold and masculine identity as the "American Woodsman," a role he nurtured in his pursuit of acceptance, if not notoriety, on both sides of the Atlantic. As Nobles captures it: "Audubon didn't just live his life; he performed it."
Among other pursuits in the book, Nobles explores Audubon's stories, some of which Audubon embellished with elaboration, evasion, and outright whoppers. At least, the author argues, we should not take all of Audubon's tales literally, although we must take them seriously.
If you haven't had your fill of Audubon biographies, pick up this book. It's another look into this complex man and his passion for birds.
ACCESS MATTERS: CLOSED PUBLIC BEACHES
Sometimes, it simply makes sense. What we are referring to is the closing of beaches to protect nesting birds. This is the opposite of birders having access; it means understanding and recognizing the importance of limiting access under certain circumstances. Let's take the case of the Piping Plover along East Coast beaches.
In many localities, beach closures begin in mid-May, or even earlier; at some places beaches are closed on Memorial Day weekend, and at other localities, closures will start in a couple weeks. It all depends on the location and the local land-management jurisdiction.
Sometimes an entire length of beach is closed. At other times, an immediate breeding zone is fenced with symbolic yellow boundary tape to indicate the birds' presence to all beach-goers, and to hopefully allow nesting pairs room enough to nest and raise their young undisturbed.
An example of a good summary - done about half a dozen years ago, but still valid - is the closure protocol at Parker River NWR in Massachusetts:
Of course, there are also other species and circumstances where closures take place at this season. They often involve plovers (including Snowy Plover on the West Coast), Black Skimmers, terns, and other birds.
Yes, access for birders and other members of the public matters, but there are crucial circumstances where birds clearly should come first.
And if you really want access to some of these beaches, there are often ways to volunteer as a monitor, which usually involves maintaining fencing, patrolling nesting areas, and even providing public education to other beach visitors.
TIP OF THE MONTH: KEEPING YOUR CAT AWAY FROM BIRDS
You may be familiar with the Cats Indoors! campaign sponsored by the American Bird Conservancy, but you may be less familiar with Nature Canada's Cats & Birds campaign. Both campaigns offer good advice, but both also run up against all-too-common practice when it comes to caring for cats.
So, for our tip of the month, it's time to consider Nature Canada's particular message.
The Canadian effort intends to impress on the public that reigning in your cat doesn't just save birds' lives; it also helps keep your pet safe and healthy. The campaign is based on five techniques:
1 Make the transition to indoor life gradually.
2 Make the indoor environment stimulating for the cat.
3 See if your cat is a candidate for harness training.
4 Invest in a cat enclosure - or "catio" - a protected outdoor space.
5 Cat-proof your garden to keep out those other neighborhood cats.
You can find more details here:
COSEWIC: BIRD-STATUS ASSESSMENT
And while we are on the subject of activities in Canada, it would be good to review the recent activities of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).
The committee held its spring meeting in Whitehorse, Yukon, in April. According to a report by Dr. Marcel Gahbauer, Co-chair of COSEWIC's Birds, the committee assessed two species for the first time - Harris's Sparrow and Lark Bunting - along with also reviewing the status of the Burrowing Owl and the Rusty Blackbird.
Harris's Sparrow is the only songbird breeding exclusively in Canada. It nests primarily in the boreal-tundra transition of the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and the northernmost parts of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario. The species is primarily monitored on its wintering grounds in the U.S., where numbers have declined by nearly 60% since 1980. The Harris's Sparrow was assigned the status of Special Concern on the basis of this trend, and concerns of ongoing threats such as habitat conversion, cat predation, and climate change.
Lark Bunting occurs in Canada only where the northernmost edge of its range crosses into Alberta and Saskatchewan. Populations of this nomadic grassland songbird fluctuate greatly from year to year, depending on seasonal weather patterns and grasshopper abundance. While this complicates trend estimation, research shows a reduction of 98% since 1970 and more than 50% in the past decade. Although the species remains numerous, COSEWIC assessed Lark Bunting as Threatened in recognition of the population's ongoing steep decline.
Burrowing Owl, up-listed from Threatened to Endangered in 1995, was reconfirmed as Endangered on the basis of population declines of more than 60% over the past decade. Also, Rusty Blackbird, assessed by COSEWIC as Special Concern in 2006 on the basis of substantial long-term population declines, retained its status, despite the assessment that numbers have largely stabilized over the past decade. Key threats continue to include wetland conversion and a blackbird control program on the U.S. wintering grounds, wetland acidification, mercury contamination, and climate change.
You can visit the COSEWIC website to learn more about the recent status assessments of Canada's wildlife at:
ANOTHER PUBLIC LAND TRANSFER BILL ABANDONED
In the March E-bulletin, we reported that Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) withdrew from consideration H.R. 621, which was a bill to sell off 3.3 million acres of federal public lands across 10 states in the West. See here:
Last month, Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV) announced that he would not be reviving a controversial bill that would have transferred public lands in Nevada to state ownership. Introduced by Amodei last year, the Honor the Nevada Enabling Act (H.R. 1484) would have legislated the transfer of millions of publicly owned acres to the state of Nevada. The bill was considered by a House subcommittee in November but failed to advance before the 114th Congress adjourned in December.
"Transferring millions of acres of public lands ... is not something I think the majority of people think is a good idea," Amodei said to the Reno Gazette-Journal in explaining his decision to abandon the bill.
The broad conservation and environmental community was encouraged by these measures. Perhaps, just perhaps, we have a trend here, one good for birds, other wildlife, and those millions of Americans engaged in fully enjoying the outdoors.