Sometimes rare birds appear in small groups or regional clusters, depending on the place, weather, and season. This is what possibly happened last month in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas.
It started with a Roadside Hawk reported on 7 November at the Quinta Mazatlan World Birding Center in McAllen. This rare raptor was first recognized by call and seen flying overhead.
The Roadside Hawk is a small tropical buteo that is a common resident in woodland borders, clearings, and roadsides from southern Tamaulipas, Mexico, to South America. It is a real rarity in the U.S., however, with only about nine records for Texas. The first was in 1901, but the second occurrence was not until 1979, more than three-quarters of a century later. Since then, there have been multiple sightings - e.g., in 1983, 2000, 2005, and 2010 - nearly all in the fall and winter. So, finding a Roadside Hawk at Quinta Mazatlan, especially at the start of the 25th annual Rio Grande Birding Festival, was particularly exciting.
But then the next day, 8 November, a Roadside Hawk was reported by Willow Lake at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. This is about nine miles away - as the hawk flies - from Qunita Mazatlan. The day after, 9 November, a Roadside Hawk was reported upriver at the National Butterfly Center and at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, about another 16-mile upriver flight from Santa Ana NWR. This juvenile individual stayed in the general area of the National Butterfly Center and Bentsen for the rest of the month. But a Roadside Hawk was also reported back at Santa Ana NWR at least twice during that period (11 and 23 November). Complicating the scene was a late-reported Roadside Hawk on 20 October at Anzalduas County Park, between Santa Ana NWR and the National Butterfly Center, although closer to the Butterfly Center.
Two birds involved? Three? More? A closer examination of available photos will probably provide a better answer.
Still, does this mean that Roadside Hawks are increasing in Mexico? Or are there simply more skilled observers birding in the Rio Grande Valley? Is the species responding to seasonal and habitat changes? You choose. But it may be significant that there have been multiple Roadside Hawks sightings in the same year previously in Texas - e.g., three birds in 2005 and at least two in 2010.
For some photos of the juvenile that remained in the vicinity of the National Butterfly Center, see these images by Linda LeRoy, taken on 17 November:
ACCESS MATTERS: ROADSIDE HAWK LESSONS
The Roadside Hawks described above make a compelling case for rarities in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and the fortuitous occasion of their appearance when there are many visiting birders in the area. But it's also a reminder of what's currently at stake.
It's sobering to realize that this is the very same area in danger of major habitat alteration and access restrictions due to the threatened Border Wall. Four of the five areas mentioned above - Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, the National Butterfly Center, Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, and Anzalduas County Park - are facing serious risk of disruption or restriction. Only Santa Ana NWR seems to have a current and tenuous reprieve.
All birders who have visited The Valley for birds in the past, and anyone who wishes to visit there in the future, ought to be concerned when it comes to habitat preservation and vital area access.
We have covered this ongoing access issue multiple times in past issues of The Birding Community E-bulletin, most recently in August 2018:
Below we revisit some recent border-wall actions and issues.
BORDER WALL OPPOSITION
In early November, over 170 organizations supporting wildlife conservation and public lands sent a joint letter to U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen M. Nielsen expressing deep concerns over plans to expand the United States-Mexico Border Wall across environmentally sensitive areas in Texas, including the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Sabal Palm Sanctuary, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and National Butterfly Center, Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park, and Black Gap Wildlife Management Area.
The groups, which include American Bird Conservancy, American Birding Association, Friends of the Migratory Bird/Duck Stamp, Hawk Migration Association of North America, National Audubon Society, Mass Audubon, National Wildlife Refuge Association, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Texas Audubon, are strongly opposed to a Border Wall across these parts of Texas due to the negative impacts it would have on birds, other wildlife, and their habitats.
While the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) publicly claims to remain "committed to environmental stewardship" and works "to minimize, to the extent possible, potential impacts to the environment, wildlife, and cultural and historic resources," the department has actually exercised waiver authority on at least nine occasions to avoid compliance with environmental laws.
"We urge that the environmental waivers be withdrawn, and that wall construction be halted in areas that threaten birds and other wildlife in favor of better high-tech alternatives," said Steve Holmer of American Bird Conservancy. "It is crucial that DHS prevent unintended impacts to already fragile wildlife ecosystems within some of the country's most biologically diverse parks and reserves. The proposed Border Wall and its associated levees, additional structures, fencing, roads, lighting, cameras, and sensors pose an unacceptably high risk to flora and fauna."
Of course, the Lower Rio Grande Valley is a special region, gifted with an unusually wide variety and abundance of birds and other wildlife. Protected areas in the region attract large numbers of wildlife-watching tourists from around the world, and provide essential economic activity in Texas. According to a 2011 Texas A&M University study, nature tourism - primarily birdwatching - contributes $463 million annually to the local economy.
You can access the full letter, with all the organizational signatories, here:
TIP OF THE MONTH: WINTER FEEDER MAINTENANCE
Once considered a wintertime activity, backyard bird feeding now takes place all year. But the practice nonetheless accelerates in winter, so now is a good time to consider your own feeder maintenance schedule.
Simply put: keeping bird feeders clean is a good way to help keep your visiting birds healthy. Odd seeds, stuck in the nooks and crannies of feeders, can become wet and moldy. These can easily be removed with a brush and water sprayed from a hose.
Still, to be sure your feeders are clean, use a highly diluted solution of bleach and water (nine parts water, one part bleach). Tube-feeders are the most important ones to clean thoroughly. Immerse the feeders in the liquid mix for a couple of minutes, then rinse and let dry before refilling with seed. (Note: even diluted bleach can discolor your shirts, blouses, pants, etc.)
Also, rake and remove seed hulls and other debris immediately below your feeders on a regular basis to retard mold and bacterial growth.
A PAUSE FOR SAGE-GROUSE?
In mid-2017, Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, ordered a truncated review of the dozens of plans for BLM leasing and sage-grouse management across the West that were put together under the Obama administration. Although these federal and state plans for sage-grouse did not please everyone, at least they were considered a success due to the broad cooperation that characterized them.
The plans had precluded listing sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2015, but they did not satisfy those in the Trump Administration pushing for its "American Energy Dominance" directive. With new urging, the BLM was prepared to lease away more lands for drilling.
But in late September the BLM hit a snag in its revived push for more oil and gas leasing. That's when a federal judge in Idaho issued an injunction ordering the Interior Department to hold off on energy leasing in sage-grouse habitat to allow for more public participation. In his ruling, Chief Magistrate Judge Ronald Bush said that the "BLM made an intentional decision to limit the opportunity for (and even in some circumstances to preclude entirely) any contemporaneous public involvement in decisions concerning whether to grant oil and gas leases on federal lands."
Because of the judge's decision, oil and gas leases for more than a million acres and covering six Western states were put on hold. For varied reasons, the implications have had particular impact in Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah, where multiple decisions are being delayed. A final environmental impact statement, incorporating the Trump Administration's expected wishes, could yet create more problems for sage-grouse, but this is not certain. The final environmental impact statement was originally expected by October, then early December, but is now in a temporary holding pattern with no specified release date.
However, a pause is not a solution. The sage-grouse saga is guaranteed to continue.
IBA NEWS: EVERGLADES REEVALUATION
The Florida Everglades system once included more than a million hectares of wetlands, sawgrass plains, and tree islands across southern Florida. Agriculture and human settlement have reduced that system by at least half, with water management issues and invasive species exacerbating the problems.
This larger ecological system embraces a number of Important Bird Areas (IBAs), such as Everglades National Park, the Northern Everglades (dominated by Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge and state-owned Water Conservation Areas), and multiple sites northward beyond Lake Okeechobee. The many unique and at-risk species inhabiting this giant system include Wood Stork, Roseate Spoonbill, Limpkin, Swallow-tailed Kite, Snail Kite, Short-tailed Hawk, and Mangrove Cuckoo.
Now, a National Academies of Sciences review of the system's 18-year-old Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) has urged a re-assessment of the restoration planning.
This assessment, released in mid-October, appeared in National Academies of Sciences Seventh Biennial Review of the massive project.
According to the review, the planning does not seem to be taking the impacts of climate change, such as sea level rise, hotter temperatures, and possible changes in rainfall into consideration. Without seriously accounting for these factors, the restoration plan will not be able to meet its intended goals: restoring the wetlands and buffering inhabited areas against Florida's intensely fluctuating hydrologic cycle. Birds, other wildlife, habitat, and certainly humans are at risk. The review urged a "mid-course assessment."
You can find a news-release summary 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:
IUCN UPDATE: A FEW SURPRISES FOR US
The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species maintains a record of how close species may be to extinction. BirdLife International is responsible for annually measuring the health of the world of birds for this tally. Every year, BirdLife updates which birds are stable, which are in recovery, and which have slipped toward extinction.
In the most recent release, there were a few surprises for us in North America. First the troubling stories:
Common Grackle populations have been dropping. With numbers plummeting by more than 50 percent between 1970 and 2014, the species has now been classed as Near Threatened by IUCN. Pest-control measures may have contributed to this decline.
Eastern Whip-poor-will data have revealed that the species population fell by over 60% between 1970 and 2014. With a dependence on flying insects for food, the species may be declining due to pesticides, intensive agriculture, and other factors reducing insect availability. The species has been up-listed to Near Threatened this year
Rufous Hummingbird could be sliding to extinction in plain sight, and the species has also been up-listed to Near Threatened this year. Its reliance on nectar and on insects during the breeding season may combine to put the species in jeopardy. This hummer may become a victim of climate change as early-blooming flowers in some locations could mean that hummingbirds arrive from migration too late to take advantage of this vital food source.
Forest fires and changes in post-fire habitat conditions could also be contributing to the species' decline.
Next, the upbeat stories:
Red-headed Woodpecker, with formerly declining populations, may have stabilized. Now placed in a "Least Concern" category, the species' population is considered healthy and stable enough that it is unlikely to face extinction anytime soon.
Henslow's Sparrow has stabilized, thanks in part to habitat management. In particular, the species has benefited from the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), where farmers are paid to remove land from cultivation and instead plant species that will improve the health and quality of the habitat.
Some of these changes fit into familiar patterns, with habitat alteration, pesticides, and climate change playing a role. Whether or not you agree with all these findings, they deserve consideration. You can find a summary here:
BIRDING IS GREAT FOR YOUR HEALTH
A short video recently posted by CNN's "Staying Well" department describes the relaxing aspects of watching birds. "Nature is absolutely essential to human health," says Dr. Nooshin Razani, at the University of California San Francisco's Center for Nature and Health. "Over the course of an hour to an hour and a half, you're walking through natural settings, symptoms of depression or anxiety improve," she continues.
The video claims that observing birds can calm the mind and bring the moment into focus. See for yourself:
THANKS TO ZEISS!
Since January 2012, Carl Zeiss Sport Optics has been a faithful and consistent sponsor for The Birding Community E-bulletin.
For the last seven years, we have been privileged to have the generous financial support of Zeiss, the producers of some of the finest birding binoculars and scopes on the planet.
Regrettably, budget constraints have made it no longer feasible for Carl Zeiss Sport Optics to sponsor our electronic newsletter. While we will forever be grateful to the generous support provided by Zeiss for so many years, we are now engaged in pursuing a new sponsor. Although our long-standing relationship with our friends at Zeiss will be missed, we are hopeful that another entity will come forward with a sponsorship proposal that will allow us to continue the monthly production of The Birding Community E-bulletin.
If you have suggestions for viable possibilities for a new sponsor, we would appreciate hearing about it. Without at least some further subsidy, we may no longer be able to produce what has been a labor of love and a long-standing, enjoyable, and regular birding and conservation report for many years.
Thank you in advance for any suggestions that you may have, and all the best to you for the coming Holiday Season.
~Paul and Wayne