Rarity of the month for February? Try: Pink-footed Goose.
Pink-footed Geese nest in Greenland, Iceland, and northern Norway (Spitsbergen), and normally winter in the British Isles and northwestern Europe. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has claimed that in the 1960s there were only 50,000 Pink-footed Geese wintering in the UK; by the turn of the century there were about 200,000. Moreover, the breeding populations in Greenland and Iceland have increased dramatically over the past quarter century, from about 10,000 pairs to well over 150,000 pairs. This increase in population has undoubtedly contributed to the increased sightings of the species in North America over the past 25 years. A somewhat similar pattern has developed for Barnacle Geese which are also experiencing increases in the Old World with parallel sightings in North America.
Pink-footed Geese have now been reported well over three dozen times in eastern Canada and the northeastern U.S., including sightings from north to south in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Quebec, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland.
Some records are presumed to represent returning wintering birds, with the best times to look for this species being January and February. This year did not disappoint. There were at least four reports in January in Massachusetts (Bristol Co.), Connecticut (New London), Rhode Island (the same as the New London bird), New York (Suffolk Co.), and New Jersey (Somerset Co.). In February, a couple of these birds continued (e.g., those in Massachusetts and New York) while other presumed individuals appeared in New Jersey (Union Co.), Pennsylvania (Bucks Co.), and Maryland (Caroline Co.).
The point of this pattern is that being on the alert for this rarity in the first two months of the year can pay off. There could certainly be more Pink-footed Geese mixed in with large flocks of Canadas. Keep looking!
IBA NEWS: SALTON SEA CROSSROADS
This may be a crucial year for the famous inland Salton Sea in Southern California, an Important Bird Area (IBA) of global significance. In the last five or so years, water level has dropped to the point that some nesting birds began abandoning entire colonial nesting sites, and shallow habitat areas at the water's edge have begun to rapidly vanish, especially at the sea's south end.
But starting last year, significant amounts of water (perhaps 40%) that enters the sea through adjacent agricultural fields began to be diverted elsewhere. The sea will continue to shrink, and this will become more obvious this year. State and federal officials will have to address these consequences as they impact bird habitat, boating recreation, and even human health (e.g. asthma increases with blowing dust). Impacts on birds includes the fact that the number of Eared Grebes is clearly declining, 30% of the continent's American White Pelicans wintering at the sea are at risk, and the future status of many shorebirds wintering there is in question. As less water flows into the Salton Sea, it will become increasingly saline with resulting shrinkage, and eventually it could become inhospitable for many birds, fish, and insects.
A late-2016 report by Audubon California, Point Blue Conservation Science, and Cooper Ecological Monitoring, Inc. modeled the use of bird habitat at the Salton Sea using data collected in 1999 and 2015. The report's recommendations could still become a standard for urgent sea conservation, and it can be found here:
For more information on the issue and on options to conserve the Salton Sea, see here:
And for a short video on the subject with California Audubon's Director of Bird Conservation, Andrea Jones, 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:
Also on the subject of water use, birds, and California, it is appropriate to consider a current proposal made by the California Rice Commission and supported by other conservationists, in coordination with the USA Rice Federation.
This proposal deals with suggested supports for "surrogate wetlands" under the U.S. Farm Bill. A proposal, clearly intended to increase support for ricelands, is currently being called the U.S. Flyways Habitat Enhancement Initiative. The two objectives of this plan are as follows: (1) eliminate the current three-year limitation on annual management practices funded through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and (2) dedicate at least 5% of annual EQIP funding to waterbird-friendly practices on agricultural lands within the major Flyways that can be flooded for sustained periods of time to provide surrogate wetlands valuable to all sorts of waterbirds. These species include waterfowl, long-legged waders, and shorebirds.
Although the proposal is coming out of California, there are implications for surrogate wetlands in many other states as well. Obviously, rice fits the bird-supporting model, but a few other crops - flooded at just the right time - can be equally important.
It remains to be seen if these proposed revisions to the Farm Bill, intended to sustain long-term bird habitat, will gain traction, but the U.S. Flyways Habitat Enhancement Initiative clearly deserves scrutiny and serious discussion.
NORTH ATLANTIC WATERS: SHORT-TAILED SHEARWATERS?
The Short-tailed Shearwater is an abundant seabird that breeds on islands off southern Australia and Tasmania, then migrates north after nesting, including along the western coast of North America, to the North Pacific where it spends the austral winter in in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. There have been only two records for the North Atlantic Ocean (one in off Virginia, January 1998, and a moribund individual off Florida, July 2000).
Given the history and presumed known distribution of the Short-tailed Shearwater, careful observations and photographs taken off Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts in October by several extremely competent observers strongly suggest that at least one (and possibly more than one) Short-tailed Shearwater may have been present in those waters last fall. Complete details are being withheld until the full publication of the observations.
These observations are especially notable following events taking place in the Southern Hemisphere this past year. Remarkably, scientists working in mid-March 2017 in the vicinity of Bouvetøya Island in the Subantarctic, discovered thousands of Short-tailed Shearwaters (from 55°S 0°E to 50°S 8°E). According scientists Peter Ryan, Fabrice Le Bouard, and Jasmine Lee (Polar Biology, June 2017), t
his observation occurred more than 2000 km west of the documented range of Short-tailed Shearwater and raised the possibility that some Short-tailed Shearwaters may actually migrate to the North Atlantic Ocean! Further observations could determine that this is a regular behavior that has been previously overlooked in the past due to confusion with the very similar-looking Sooty Shearwater, or simply that 2017 was an unusual year for Short-tailed Shearwaters. Time will hopefully tell.
WISDOM DOES IT AGAIN
Wisdom, that long-lived Laysan Albatross on Midway Island, is a mother once again at the astounding age of 67. Wisdom is the world's oldest known wild bird, and she and her current mate, Akeakamai, welcomed their newest chick early last month at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. This was two months after Wisdom began incubating her egg.
Wisdom has been using the same nesting site at Midway since at least 1956, when she was first banded by the late ornithologist, Chan Robbins. She's one of over three million seabirds that return annually to Midway Atoll to rest, mate, lay eggs, and raise their chicks.
For more information, see here:
BOOK NOTES: COFFEE LESSON FOR KIDS
Last year, a short children's book was published that filled a niche that many of us didn't think even existed. Look, See the Bird! (Hatherlee Press, 2017), written by Bill Wilson and Katie Fallon and illustrated by Leigh Anne Carter, is designed to raise curiosity among young readers between the ages of 3 and 7 (in preschool through second grade) about birds, coffee crops, and long-distance bird migration.
The book opens with a young brother and sister, Ruben and Maria, watching a variety of birds on their family coffee farm in Nicaragua. These birds - one by one - leave the area in spring to travel northward. Then, in places as far-flung as Texas, Alabama, Washington, West Virginia, New York, and Ontario, other young children come to discover these very same birds passing through or nesting where they live. It's an experience involving observation and discovery shared by different children in different places - an experience which virtually connects all of them. At the end of the story and at the end of summer, the birds return southward, back to Nicaragua and back to Ruben and Maria.
The final pages of the little book provide individual profiles of each of the migratory birds in the story and raise questions about their travels.
The coffee connection is made by author Bill Wilson, best know for his Birds & Beans Coffee Company. The second author, nature writer and educator Kate Fallon, and experienced illustrator and naturalist, Leigh Anne Carter, round out the team.
Younger children may have difficulty grasping some of the geographical references, but the general message of enjoying these colorful birds and sharing their wonder clearly comes through.
TIP OF THE MONTH AND ACCESS MATTERS: HAPPY 115TH
This month, we combine two of our regular features, "Tip of the Month" and "Access Matters," as we recognize the National Wildlife Refuge System turning 115 years-old.
On 14 March 1903, with the encouragement of noted ornithologist Frank Chapman and the Florida Audubon Society, President Theodore Roosevelt established Pelican Island in the Indian River Lagoon as the country's first Federal Bird Reservation. The intent was to save Brown Pelicans from poachers. This action soon gave birth to the National Wildlife Refuge System. By the end of his conservation-studded presidency, Teddy Roosevelt had named nine more reservations in Florida and a total of 55 bird reservations and national game preserves, the forerunner to the modern National Wildlife Refuge System.
This anniversary will be recognized at scores of refuges throughout the Refuge System, with a number of different kinds of activities and celebrations. Look for a Refuge event near you.
It's a perfect occasion to recognize and acknowledge the remarkable access opportunities we have as bird enthusiasts when it comes to our National Wildlife Refuges, the world's largest network of lands and waters set aside specifically for wildlife conservation.