The Golden-crowned Warbler is a species of lowlands and foothills of Mexico, south to Argentina. The bird is a very rare and mainly winter visitor to Texas in the United States, occurring almost annually to the Lower Rio Grande Valley in recent years, but the species is still very noteworthy. There is also one record for New Mexico at the Melrose migrant trap in Roosevelt County in 2001.
So, it was a real shocker when, on 15 May, Glenn Walbek found a Golden-crowned Warbler along CR9, about a mile south of the Kit Carson/Cheyenne county line in Colorado.
Colorado? Yes, Colorado!
The bird was observed from the county road at the private Mitchek Ranch. The renters living on the ranch were told to expect visiting birders along the county road, and the residents were receptive and understanding, but since they did not own the property they could not grant access to any property off the county road.
Regardless, the situation worked out well. Glenn Walbek kept tabs on the bird's daily movements, and dozens of birders - a number from out of state - were able to see it. Sometimes the Golden-crowned Warbler was in a juniper on the east side of the road, sometimes in bushes by a cross street not far from a ranch house, often in a flowering chokecherry thicket on the west side of the road. Much of the time however, the warbler was skulky and difficult to find. It was last observed on 24 May.
Here are some good photos from Scott Somershoe from the second day that the bird was observed:
ACCESS MATTERS: A QUICK LESSON
On Wednesday, 23 May, a rare Thick-billed Vireo was seen and photographed at Oleta River State Park in Miami-Dade County, Florida. This Caribbean individual might otherwise have been a contender for this month's rarity focus, but the Golden-crowned Warbler in Colorado was a mega-rarity. Besides, the vireo was only seen at the park for one day.
The Thick-billed Vireo was found behind a workshop area in a restricted zone of the park. Fortunately, the manager of the park granted access for those interested in going to look for the bird.
The rare visitor could not be re-found after that original Wednesday, despite searching. Fortunately birders knew that it was not forbidden access that was the cause for failure to rediscover the bird. Indeed, quick access was important, if only to confirm that the bird was probably gone. This is just another instance showing how birder access matters.
GROUSE AND THE MILITARY
Once again, certain politicians are trying to use legislation that funds the U.S. military to prevent conservation of Greater Sage-Grouse. Unfortunately, it seems that just about every spring this issue comes up , and we've explored it before, in May 2016, for example:
Typically, an attempt is made to add language to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDDA) through the House Armed Services Committee under the premise that a possible sage-grouse listing under the Endangered Species Act would undermine national security.
And this is exactly what happened in the House last month, with the 9 May markup hearing for the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 5515). Congressman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) submitted and got passed an amendment that would prevent the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from listing the Greater Sage-Grouse under the Endangered Species Act for 10 years and preclude judicial review. In a harmful and creative twist, the imperiled Lesser Prairie-Chicken was also tossed into the mix in the amendment.
Bishop has attempted to add similar provisions to two previous versions of the defense bill, but these did not make it into the final bills under consideration after being removed during conference committee with the Senate's version of the legislation.
Because some politicians cannot get their anti-grouse legislation passed through the normal committees and bills, they are using a false narrative on the impact of grouse conservation to attach riders to the urgent and "must-pass" NDAA. Previous NDAA attempts concerning Greater Sage-Grouse have been defeated, primarily because Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) felt that the defense authorization should not be used as a tool for special interests on non-military/defense issues. Now with Senator McCain gravely ill and taking a leave from the Senate, a few members of Congress are taking the opportunity to advance the grouse-rider.
Right now, the Senate does not have its own defense bill language. Differences that might exist between the bills passed by both chambers would have to be reconciled before heading to the president's desk. Nonetheless, this issue could lead to delays in passing the NDAA which could have an unforeseen impact on the military.
IBA NEWS: ANOTHER WHSRN EXPANSION
The Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1932 as a migratory bird refuge, covers a 20-mile segment of the Atlantic coast and embraces barrier islands, salt marshes, coastal waterway, beaches, fresh and brackish water impoundments, and maritime forest. The refuge has been a historic stopover location for migratory birds, especially waterfowl and shorebirds. It is also an important area for colonially nesting birds such as Brown Pelican, multiple tern species, and Black Skimmer. Importantly, Cape Romain is also the center of American Oystercatcher wintering on the east coast. All these factors led the NWR to be designated an Important Bird Area (IBA) of state significance.
The shorebird significance of the area also led to the designation of the Cape Romain NWR as a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN) Site of International Importance in 1995. But a few months ago, the WHSRN Executive Office announced the expansion of the site's designation.
The WHSRN Hemispheric Council voted to expand the existing 64,000-acre site to encompass the Cape Romain - Santee Delta Region, a WHSRN Site of International Importance that totals 119,440 acres. The original site's 20-mile designation now stretches for 50 miles along the South Carolina coastline. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) emphasizes that this new and expanded designation "represents years of private, state, and federal collaboration to better understand and protect shorebirds." The expansion unites seven sub-sites managed by three different partners - the federally run Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, and the privately run Dewees Island Property Owners Association.
In this new expanded WHSRN site, shorebirds can find a diverse range of important habitat, including intertidal mud and sand flats, ocean beaches, salt marsh, and managed wetlands and impoundments of both fresh and brackish water.
The IBA designation of the original Cape Romain NWR as an IBA is described here:
Details on the WHSRN expansion -including the new involved units - can be located 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:
NJ BOBWHITE TRANSLOCATION
At one time in recent memory, Northern Bobwhites were relatively common in farmlands, young forests, and grassy suburbs across the East. But those days seem to be long gone in many places, including the Mid-Atlantic States. To address this issue, many Northern Bobwhites - including a number from Georgia - have been translocated to seemingly promising sites in the hopes of reestablishing sustainable populations of this once-common quail.
For example, for the fourth consecutive year, wild Northern Bobwhite quail were recently translocated from Georgia to the New Jersey Pinelands in a project led by New Jersey Audubon, with multiple partners, including Tall Timbers Research Station & Land Conservancy, Pine Island Cranberry, Pine Creek Forestry, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, and the University of Delaware. Eighty quail were released this year at the Pine Island study site, with follow-up tracking planned as part of the effort.
Unlike previous years (2015-2017) where translocated birds were split into potential coveys and spread over the 14,000-acre study site, all of this year's translocated birds were released in one area to help boost the population density in a concentrated area of optimal habitat. This area has supported quail and their offspring from prior years, and releasing all birds into a single focal area was seen as helping overall survival by increasing covey size, mating opportunities, and nesting and hatching.
In addition, Northern Bobwhite research in other states has indicated that low densities associated with translocation could have implications for quail reproduction by limiting pair formation and might also increase predation vulnerability.
But the New Jersey researchers also understand that mere translocation cannot succeed without taking into consideration other crucial factors facing the quail, such as fragmented landscapes, urban sprawl, predation, succession of native grassland and young forest ecosystems, presence of non-native invasive vegetation, climate change factors, and modernized farming practices. These are just some of the obstacles that must be considered and evaluated if this project is to succeed.
Some results of the project between 2015 - present when 320 birds were released include 39 nests found (with the first confirmed nesting of Northern Bobwhite in NJ Pinelands since the 1980s), over 115 chicks hatched, confirmed successful over-wintering from year to year, confirmed nest success with double-clutching, and documented benefits for other species (plant and animal) relying on same habitat as quail, especially young forest species birds.
Other bobwhite conservationists are seriously watching this project to evaluate lessons learned.
TIP OF THE MONTH: BACK OFF
While driving on the highway, from time to time you've probably encountered that assertive bumper-sticker, slapped onto a car in front of you: "Back off!" This announces to other drivers the driver's annoyance when it comes to tail-gating. This is a good reminder to all of us to maintain an appropriate distance to cars in front of us when driving.
Unfortunately, bird nests don't come with any equivalent signage. At this season, as many birds are nest-building, incubating, or feeding young, they are extremely vulnerable. And there are no good reasons why we should make their lives any more vulnerable or more difficult.
Of course, being dive-bombed by a Northern Mockingbird, Brewer's Blackbird, Northern Goshawk, or a colony of Common Terms is plenty of notice that you've come too close to a nest site. So is the "broken wing act" (a.k.a. distraction display) of a Killdeer, or the "rodent run" of a Piping Plover.
Too close an approach to a nest can lead to severe consequences. And reoccurring visits in particular, can leave a path or a scent trail for potential predators to follow. If you find a nest, don't simply go back the way you came, leaving a dead-end trail to the location; try to leave the area by another route.
Basically, if you come across a nest, and unless you're doing real research, it's time to move on. Don't linger. Don't photograph it. And don't record it for YouTube posterity. Indeed, most of us should refrain from photographing nesting birds altogether. In many cases the practice is unnecessary, unjustifiable, and often can add up to harassment.
This season is a stressful time for birds, and usually they will let you know when you are getting too close. Under those circumstances, and for the good of the birds, it's a good time to back off.
KENTUCKY CRANE CUNUMDRUM
We have previously written about a situation concerning the growing Eastern Population (EP) of Sandhill Cranes, and the status of the hunting season on this species, particularly in Kentucky. Once nearly extirpated, the EP has increased in number and expanded its breeding and wintering range, particularly over the last decade. Two states have even initiated EP Sandhill Crane hunting seasons: Kentucky in 2011 and Tennessee in 2013, with approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). These decisions have been contentious however.
Kentucky residents, for example, had until the end of last month to comment on broadening the hunting season - an issue that has previously solicited much discussion.
The USFWS has approved changes in Kentucky to allow hunters to harvest more of the cranes. The proposed new plan would end a 400-bird limit on harvest and allow over 1,300 cranes to be taken each year. It would increase the length of the season, from 30 to 56 days, extending it to the end of January. It would also create a no-hunting zone at Green River Lake to protect a relatively new area where the cranes gather to roost.
Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Migratory Bird Program Coordinator John Brunjes said, "We're trying to provide a little bit of hunting in a way that doesn't negatively impact that population."
Admittedly, the EP has grown considerably. It is estimated to have increased by 100% (to 100,000 birds) since 2001, but there are still some problems. This Kentucky wintering population comes from several different states and provinces, some of which may include unstudied, if not fragile, populations.
Currently, Kentucky hunters only use a fraction of the hunting-tags issued because the birds are notoriously hard to hunt.
From 2011 until 2017-2018, the total take per season has never reached 200 cranes (119 cranes in the 2017-18 season). Why increase the number of tags so dramatically?
Unfortunately, the hunting season also coincides with the period during which Whooping Cranes are known to be wintering in Kentucky. This could represent an accident waiting to happen.
The benefits to Kentucky are varied, but the economic contributions of local and out-of-state "avitourists" have not been sufficiently considered in the decision-making according to some Kentuckians. Tony Brusate, president of the Central Kentucky Audubon Society, said that he would prefer to see the state "celebrating" the cranes. "Birding ecotourism is a financial driver in many communities; it really needs to be pushed," Brusate said. "It seems that we are really missing the chance to celebrate these birds..."
A legislative subcommittee will consider the recent comments, and review the proposed changes before reaching a decision later this summer.
BOOK NOTES: FEATHERS, OBSESSION, AND THEFT
It's about the feathers.
Kirk Wallace Johnson's absorbing book, The Feather Thief (2018, Viking) makes the key connection that is captured by the book's subtitle, "Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century."
Again, it's about feathers, possibly the biological feature most unique to birds, and the use of feathers in salmon fly-fishing. Actually, the book is about the strange story of a master fly-tier named Edwin Rist. On the night of 29 June 2009, Rist - who was then a 20-year-old American student at the Royal Academy of Music in London - broke into the Tring Museum, a suburban outpost of the British Natural History Museum.
In that heist, Rist removed almost 300 rare bird skins and transported them in a rolling suitcase he had brought along for that purpose. Rist got away with 24 Magnificent Riflebirds, 37 King Birds of Paradise, 47 Indian Crows, and more, in total 16 different species and subspecies. Many of the stolen specimens had originally been collected 150 years previously by naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, the esteemed contemporary of Charles Darwin.
The Feather Thief
almost reads like a mystery thriller. There is even the presence of a dedicated female British detective sergeant in the story, one Adele Hopkins, who leads the investigation. But it's not fiction. Readers discover that while it took over a year for Hopkins and her team to track the theft to Rist, by that time he had made a fortune,
apparently selling the stolen goods for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Rist sold either entire bird skins or individual bags of assorted feathers online to devoted salmon fly-tying practitioners. The entire lot of feathers was reportedly worth a million dollars on the black market.
Of the 299 stolen bird skins, only 174 were found in Rist's apartment still intact. Of those, only 102 retained their critical labels. Without such labels, crucial biodata, these specimens were of little scientific value.
It is a strange but compelling story, presented well by Los-Angeles-based author Johnson. He leads the reader from 19th century scientific jungle expeditions, to the feather-trade of the late 1800s when women's fashion was enhanced with egret plumes and other feathers. And he brings us to the feather-reliant Victorian art of salmon fly-tying, a revival starting in the 1990s, and its standards, exotic nomenclature, legends, and competition. The subculture's devotees also include many who exist cryptically online in what has been termed, "the feather underground."
Yes, the book is mostly about the feathers, the band of fly-tiers, and the search for the thief, and not primarily about the birds. But it is nonetheless a fascinating story, well-written and compelling.
It is discouraging to learn that Edwin Rist, the feather thief who could have spent an estimated two to eight years in prison, never served time. Due to a controversial Asperger's defense, he received a 12 months suspended sentence, so long as he committed no new crimes during that period.