The grassquit - a very small, mostly olive bird with a blackish-smudged face and a petite conical finch-bill - was photographed at a recently burned slash pine area near the turn entering the campground.
Black-faced Grassquits are widespread residents in the Caribbean - except in Cuba where they are largely absent and replaced by the Cuban Grassquit - and in northern South America. The species is very rarely seen in Florida, with only about 15 records since the 1870s. Their past occurrences in Florida show no obvious or predictable seasonal pattern. The two most recent previous sightings were at Bill Baggs State Park in 2013 and at Bahia Honda State Park in 2015. Curiously, a Black-faced Grassquit was also observed through most of September 2003 at Long Pine Key. Last month's grassquit obligingly remained on site for most of the month, and the lone male even built a nest.
The possibility of escaped cage birds potentially complicates evaluating Black-faced Grassquit records, even though the species is only rarely kept in captivity, and most Florida reports probably represent legitimate natural vagrants.
IBA NEWS: THREAT TO SANTA ANA NWR
Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in the Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV) of Texas is currently under an immediate threat from the Trump Administration's border-wall plans. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and its subcontractors have recently been taking soil samples and making other preparations to build a huge and intrusive 18-foot border-wall through the north end of the refuge. These preliminary activities have been occurring at the refuge for months, but nothing was officially announced until information was leaked last month.
Santa Ana NWR represents 2,088 acres of vital borderland habitat along the banks of the Rio Grande. The refuge was originally created in 1943 to protect migratory birds, and almost 95% of the property was acquired through Duck-Stamp/MBFC dollars.
Some 400 bird species have been recorded in the refuge, including migratory waterfowl, raptors, warblers, and a suite of "South Texas specialties" that are Mexican in character and barely range into Texas. Moreover, Santa Ana NWR is an essential part of that intricate network of natural hotspots in the four-county LRGV that draws an economic income of over $465 million per year from eco-tourists and birders.
Santa Ana NWR is an American Bird Conservancy-designated Important Bird Area (IBA) in the Tamaulipan Brushlands of south Texas and is among the ABC's 500 most important IBAs in the United States. Santa Ana NWR is an IBA that clearly deserves special consideration.
By initiating the border-wall on federal property at Santa Ana NWR, the Trump Administration can avoid the logistical and political nightmare of dealing with private landowners in building a wall through their backyards. Presently the plan is to build the wall on the levee that goes through and beyond the north end of the refuge.
In late July, the U.S. House of Representative passed a $788 billion defense spending bill which included $1.6 billion of funding for a U.S.-Mexico border wall. The wall funding is intended to be mostly for Arizona and the LRGV, and it currently meets the Administration's down-payment budget request. It is likely that plans for the border-wall will get bogged down in the Senate, but there is already enough current funding in the pipeline to start the project somewhere on the levee.
If building the border wall through Santa Ana NWR becomes a reality, nearby properties upriver and downriver will also be at risk. These would include sections of the associated Lower Rio Grande NWR, and Texas state properties such as wildlife management areas and the birder-friendly Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, county lands, and even private properties along this important wildlife corridor.
If you wish to express concern about this issue to Congress, you can access a template letter from the National Wildlife Refuge Association which you can edit at:
You can also obtain more details from the Friends of the Migratory Bird/Duck Stamp at:
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:
ACCESS MATTERS: DELAWARE DEVELOPMENT
Starting 1 July, the state of Delaware initiated a new "Conservation Access Pass" to help provide funding for the Division of Fish & Wildlife in order to maintain and improve public access, facilities, and wildlife habitat at almost 20 official State Wildlife Areas (WMAs).
This Conservation Access Pass is required for any registered motor vehicle used to access State Wildlife Areas for birdwatching, hiking, horseback riding, wildlife photography, hunting, and other recreational activities anytime between 1 July and 30 June of the following year.
On the surface, this seems to be a fine idea, especially since birders, wildlife photographers, hikers, and others should really be "paying their own way" to sustain wildlife habitat and support beleaguered state wildlife agencies. Paying for access is something we should all be getting used to these days.
But there are some real problems with this seemingly otherwise good idea.
- The annual passes are not cheap, even for Delaware residents. It costs a Delaware resident $32.50 for an annual vehicle pass, and $10 for a three-day pass. For vehicles with an out-of-state registration, an annual pass costs $65, and a three-day pass costs $20.
- There is no such thing as a group pass, even a single-day group pass. If there is a multi-vehicle birding group visiting from nearby New Jersey or Virginia, for example, each vehicle accessing the state wildlife area would have to have to clearly display a valid pass on the dashboard of each car.
- Passes are assigned to individual vehicles, and the ability to transfer the pass to another vehicle under the same ownership will cost an additional $10.
- Delaware State Parks are administered through a different division of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, and a different pass would be required to access state parks.
- Hunters can get one free annual vehicle pass with the purchase of a Delaware hunting license. That vehicle pass will be valid to access State Wildlife Areas for both hunting and non-hunting activities. That sounds fair enough, but they will be getting two "licenses" for the price of one.
- The "annual pass" is based on a traditional hunting-license "year" of July-to-July. A smarter idea, at any price would be 365 days upon the date of purchase.
- This is Delaware, after all, the state that boasts the moniker, "Small Wonder." Buying such a pass for wildlife areas and parks in, say, Texas (with 47 WMAs), California (with 103 WMAs and 87 ecological reserves), or Florida (with 131 WMAs), would be more palatable, given the greater number of facilities and many more access opportunities.
While paying for public access is fully justifiable, there have to be more equitable ways to approach the concept than that currently being implemented in Delaware.
Additionally, one consequence of this new system may be that birding coverage at some of Delaware's fine birding locations (e.g., Little Creek Wildlife Area, Ted Harvey Wildlife Area, and Nanticoke Wildlife Area) will diminish; the accurate status of birds on some of the state properties may become under-recorded (e.g., fewer eBird submissions), and the state's Division of Fish & Wildlife will hardly be better off.
Take a look at the description of this pass, and decide for yourself:
WORLD SHOREBIRDS DAY
The 4th World Shorebirds Day is just around the corner, and in a month, hundreds of birdwatchers will be going afield to count shorebirds. Global Shorebird Counting is a program of World Shorebirds Day, an effort that will take place between 1-7 September 2017. Registration is open and available at this link:
TIP OF THE MONTH: ASK CUSTOMS
Last month, at a very successful biennial BirdsCaribbean meeting in Topes de Callentes, Cuba, 240 attendees discussed important issues concerning conservation, bird education, avitourism, birding, regional ornithology, and crucial areas of overlap for these multiple concerns.
Some of the most lively discussion took place over the issue of the illegal underground cagebird trade, especially, but not only, in Cuba. We have written about this subject before (e.g., on Cuban Grassquits and Cuban Bullfinches), most recently in February 2016:
But this issue is not simply a problem for concerned residents of the Caribbean, or for people who are witnessing the trade in a state like Florida. It is a problem that many travelers can actually address.
Our hint this month is simple and straightforward: Whenever you return from foreign travel (especially when returning from the Caribbean) ask your Customs Agent if he/she is looking out for smuggled birds. It's as simple as that.
We know about some engaged and really positive responses and dialogue that have transpired out of these exchanges. Most agents will say that they are on alert; so, thank them for their attentiveness. Some agents may not be that aware; so, your inquiry may jog their memory. Let them know you are concerned. It can only help.
BOOK NOTES: MEXICAN & CENTRAL AMERICAN RAPTORS
For lovers of raptors, particularly some of the spectacular species occurring in Mexico and Central America (e.g., Harpy Eagle) a handsome new field guide by world raptor authority William S. Clark and widely acclaimed bird artist N. John Schmitt is a gem. Raptors of Mexico and Central America (Princeton University Press, 2017), is the first guide to exclusively and comprehensively cover the region's 69 species of diurnal raptors.
Featuring a rich combination of 32 detailed color plates with facing identification descriptions, a full species-account section for each species covered in the book, and over 200 stunning photos, this guide has clearly set the bar for northern Neotropical raptor identification. It offers a good balance between extensive identification information and plumage descriptions, regional status and distribution data, commentary on subspecies, species behavior, and more. The presentation of smallish range-maps may be perhaps one of the rare drawbacks of this book. This handsome volume, nonetheless, should be a useful companion for any raptor aficionado visiting or living in the region in question, or simply for the armchair birder who enjoys a fine bird book.
Established in the 1930s by the FDR Administration, the Patuxent Research Refuge is the nation's only National Wildlife Refuge established to support wildlife research. Today, most of the research is conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) through the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. The refuge and the center have been essentially synonymous for about 80 years. Unfortunately, both arms of science at Patuxent - USGS and USFWS - are likely to suffer drastic budget cuts in the ongoing federal budget tug-of-war.
One of the first casualties will be the Whooping Crane Propagation Program, an effort that began in 1966 with the arrival at Patuxent of an injured juvenile Whooping Crane. Since then, the program grew to produce hundreds of captive-breeding crane eggs and young. The program has had its ups and downs, but last summer the associated Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership crafted a new five-year plan to use these captive hatched chicks to boost the experimental Wisconsin Whooping Crane population.
Nevertheless, the Whooping Crane Propagation Program at Patuxent will close in FY18 and the approximately 75 cranes at Patuxent will be moved to other institutions. Those in charge of Patuxent admit that "there likely will be a disruption of reproduction in those birds for the 2018 season and beyond" and it may "slow the rate of production of chicks for reintroduction of Whooping Cranes, at least temporarily."
One has to wonder how this original Endangered Species Act flagship effort, once ended, will be able to effectively continue to advance the cause of crane conservation.
HIGHLIGHTING SAGE-GROUSE EFFORTS
It seems like every other issue of this Birding Community E-bulletin has a story of developments or concerns when it comes to sage-grouse.
This month however, we simply wish to draw your attention to a new and free "Healthy Sagebrush Communities" poster on sage-grouse and sage-grouse habitat. At one time, this habitat spread over 240,000 square miles, but today it has been reduced to almost half that size.
The new poster - available from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) of the Department of Agriculture - shows how ranchers are voluntarily conserving habitat for sage-grouse, while also benefiting other wildlife, local communities, rural economies, working ranches, and soil and rangeland health.
The resource is available in three formats: a print-ready version, an interactive digital version, and a multimedia story:
These days, we try to end the Birding Community E-bulletin with a report on some encouraging Congressional action.
Late last month, a number of Senators introduced a bill to ban chlorpyrifos, a widely used pesticide that has been killing birds and poisoning the environment for the past half-century: Ten Senators, all of them Democrats so far, have already signed on to the bill: Tom Udall (NM), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), Cory Booker (NJ), Richard Blumenthal (CT), Kamala Harris (CA), Edward J. Markey (MA), Ben Cardin (MD), Richard Durbin (IL), Jeff Merkley (OR) and Sheldon Whitehouse (RI). A couple of Democratic House members, Nydia Velazquez (NY) and Keith Ellison (MN), are offering a companion bill in the House.
The "Protect Children, Farmers & Farmworkers from Nerve Agent Pesticides Act" (SB 1624) would prohibit all chlorpyrifos use by amending the U.S. Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act that oversees food safety.
Chlorpyrifos is an organophosphate actually related to sarin nerve gas. Residential uses of chlorpyrifos ended in 2000 after the EPA found unsafe exposures to children. The EPA also stopped the use of chlorpyrifos on tomatoes and restricted its use on apples and grapes in 2000, and in July 2012, instituted no-spray buffers around homes, schools, playfields, day cares, hospitals, and other public places, ranging from 10 to 100 feet.
In addition to the pesticide's well-known threats to human health, the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) has raised concerns over the pesticide's impact on birds, including declining species like the Mountain Plover. Last summer, a draft biological evaluation from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stated that chlorpyrifos is likely to adversely affect 97 percent of all wildlife.
EPA scientists had been on a course to ban the pesticide from use on all crops. In late March, however, EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, rejected the conclusion of the agency's own pesticide experts, who had recommended that EPA forbid use of the pesticide permanently at farms nationwide. He reversed the recommendation of the agency's own scientists and extended chlorpyrifos' registration for yet another five years.
At this point, it is encouraging that some members of Congress are moving on the issue.
You can get more information on chlorpyrifos from ABC here: