Pink-footed Geese have been very rare anywhere in North America in the past. The species normally breeds in Greenland, Iceland, and Svalbard and traditionally spend the winter in the British Isles and northwestern Europe. Populations of this species in Greenland and Iceland have increased dramatically over the past two decades, from about 10,000 breeding pairs to over 130,000. This increase may be contributing to the increased late fall and winter sightings in North America over the past 25 years.
By the start of 2011, Pink-footed Geese had been reported about two dozen times in eastern Canada and the northeastern U.S., including in Newfoundland, Quebec, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. They were often found in flocks of Canada Geese.
In 2012, there was a run of these geese in North America, sprinkling individuals in the Northeast, including Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and Maine, as well as in Nova Scotia and Quebec.
By 2014, one could reasonably say that Pink-footed Geese were still rare but increasing in the East, with some birds presumably returning for successive winters. There were even a few oddball records, birds in Washington for the winter of 2003-4 and Nebraska in 2006.
This winter has been a banner season for Pink-footed Geese, and January 2017 was no exception.
The year began with two geese in Somerset County and one in Monmouth County, New Jersey, and another in Nassau County, New York. Then they appeared in Essex County, Massachusetts, and Rockland, Maine. One also made a brief appearance at the Fairfield County Hunt Club in Westport, Connecticut, on 5 January. By 15 January, one showed up in Yarmouth County, Nova Scotia. And one was photographed in a flock of Canada Geese in Cape May County, New Jersey on 28 January.
Most notable was a pair of Pink-footed Geese which appeared on 22 January in Victoria, British Columbia, well outside the expected traditional vagrant zones. Photos of these last birds can be viewed here:
Some of these birds stayed for weeks; others were only short-timers. Regardless, more of these rarities will very likely show up in February and March, especially in the Northeast, so be alert!
NOT ALL RARITY SIGHTINGS END WELL
Ross's Gull is a mega-rarity almost anywhere south of the Arctic Circle, and even there it is only uncommonly seen. So, it was a real surprise when on the afternoon of Thursday, 12 January, Don Pendleton reported an adult Ross's Gull at Half Moon Bay harbor, Pillar Point, in California. The only previous California record was a bird seen and photographed for three days in 2006 at the Salton Sea.
The bird at Half Moon Bay last month was seen by an RV parking lot, and then it moved to a local airport north of the harbor the next day. Fortunately, a weekend was coming up, and by lunch-time Saturday morning, 14 January, literally hundreds of birders had seen the gull.
You can view lovely images here:
But on Saturday afternoon, at about 2pm and with about two dozen observers watching, two Peregrine Falcons appeared on the scene. The Ross's Gull lifted off from a nearby field where it had been foraging and did its best to evade the two hefty falcons, but was quickly nabbed in flight by one of the raptors. The two Peregrine Falcons then flew westward towards the end of the airport, with one carrying the gull.
Indeed, not all rarity chases end well! It was a good day for the falcons, a bad day for the birders who arrived late, and a doubly bad day for the Ross's Gull.
ACCESS MATTERS: CROWD CONTROL
And speaking of Ross's Gulls, one was also found on the morning of 25 January, at a pond by Tupper Lake,
in Franklin County in the Adirondacks in upstate New York.
Information was not circulated until the next day, partly because the bird had been found on private property where the property owner did not want hordes of birders coming because of a construction project taking place there.
By the afternoon of 26 January however, the address of the site and the appropriate "ground-rules" were circulated. Basically, no more than 12 birders would be permitted on the property at one time. Those who had seen the bird were asked to please move on to give newcomers a view. The homeowner, Jack Delehanty, was ultimately fine with visitors. Birders could visit his outside deck at the back of the house to view the gull. Nonetheless conditions were very icy so there was still some concern about people falling.
Apparently, one of the construction workers had gone ice-fishing on 25 January, and he had left walleye eggs on the ice. These are apparently what originally attracted the gull. Eventually more fish eggs were supplied for the gull to eat!
The gull remained through the 27 January, and was later found on 28 January at the lake's boat launch as well as near the nearby Route 30 bridge. It remained in the general area through the end of the month.
The lesson here is that when it comes to private property, safety, and crowd-control, it is always appropriate to establish ground rules for allowing access. The Delehanty family was both gracious and welcoming, but birders had to adhere to some basic etiquette, including a limitation of a dozen people at one time. This was more than fair enough!
"TOGETHER FOR BIRDS" STATEMENT
The American Birds Conservancy has been circulating an appeal addressed to the recently seated Congress to make decisions to help conserve wild birds and their habitats. It's a basic statement of support, and it will be presented with collected signatures, now in the thousands, to government decision-makers on Earth Day, April 22.
Support is requested for:
- The Endangered Species Act: Protecting the Act that has helped recover our national bird, the Bald Eagle, and other species in trouble.
- The Migratory Bird Treaty Act: Safeguarding the only law that exists to protect most American birds, and support the federal Duck Stamp, one of the nation's most successful conservation programs.
- Federal funding for birds: Maintaining and growing essential sources of federal support for migratory bird conservation.
- The Environmental Protection Agency: Ensuring that the EPA can continue its vital work to protect people and birds from dangerous pesticides and other toxins.
- Land management for birds and people: Ensuring that public lands remain public, are properly managed for wildlife, and that recreational access is maintained.
You can view the appeal and share details here:
BLACK RAIL FREE FALL CONTINUES
The Center for Conservation Biology, based at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, has issued warnings about the state of Black Rails in free fall.
What we know today about this small and secretive marsh dweller is largely scattered throughout the literature. Much of the species' ecology and distribution remains a mystery. But starting with efforts around the Eastern Black Rail Conservation and Management Working Group in 2009, more information has been accumulated.
Unfortunately, the northern range of the bird - from Massachusetts to New Jersey - has shrunk considerably since the late 1980s. Counts at previously known strongholds (e.g., Elliott Island in Maryland, Saxis Marsh in Virginia, and Cedar Island in North Carolina) have resulted in no birds or extremely poor numbers in recent years. Most East Coast counts have documented a 64% decline in occupancy and an 89% decline in detection.
For a short summary of the Black Rail situation on the East Coast, see this page from the Center's website:
TIP OF THE MONTH: SHORT-EARED OWL-WATCHING
It was late last year when the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) received a number of reports of individuals purposely flushing roosting Short-eared Owls in the Washington County Grasslands Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in order observe and photograph the birds in flight.
While DEC has encouraged people to enjoy watching wildlife in the Washington County Grasslands WMA and other public lands, the agency has also asked that wildlife-watchers and photographers do so in a way that protects wildlife, especially endangered and threatened species.
The Short-eared Owl is a New York State endangered species, occurring in the Washington County Grasslands from its breeding grounds in Canada to spend the winter.
The owls fly from their ground-roosts at dusk each day and put on an aerial show when foraging for mice and voles. Since the owls can be easily disturbed by anyone walking near their roosting sites, the DEC asked visitors to the Washington County Grasslands WMA, and all other public lands, to observe specific guidelines for the protection of the birds:
- Avoid repeatedly flushing or otherwise purposely disturbing wildlife when watching or photographing them. Never purposely chase wildlife!
- Keep a respectful distance from nests and young, especially in hot, cold, or windy weather.
- Stay in your vehicle, it serves as a blind and often allows for closer and longer observations without disturbing wildlife.
- Stay on existing roads, trails, or pathways to avoid trampling fragile vegetation.
- Leave the area as you found it.
- Know and observe the laws, rules, and regulations governing the site.
- Get prior permission to enter private or posted property.
- Be considerate of others around you, since group actions have magnified effects.
- Ensure that all members of the group know and follow the guidelines.
- Monitor the behavior of group members and ensure they act responsibly.
- Be aware that purposely disturbing, flushing, or chasing an endangered or threatened species is harassment and is ILLEGAL.
- Please document such activity and report it to the DEC.
Short-eared Owls are nifty birds, and our tip this month is to pay heed to these directives when in the field, where they pertain to wintering Short-eared Owls, as well as other area-sensitive species.
IBA NEWS: REVISITING WASHINGTON COUNTY FARMLANDS
Our IBA news this month concerns the very same location and species described above.
Audubon New York has identified a significant part of the Washington County farmlands as a New York State Important Bird Area (IBA), specifically for grassland birds and their protection, since their numbers are in sharp decline. In addition, New York's DEC has identified specific farmland areas (both active and abandoned) in Washington County as critically important to several species of grassland birds.
Appropriate behavior in these areas is essential, and acting in a way that displaces the birds and threatens the site is impossible to justify.
For information on the IBA, see here for the Friends of the Washington County Grasslands Important Bird Area;
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:
END OF CALIFORNIA'S DROUGHT?
In previous issues of the Birding Community E-bulletin we have looked into California's worst drought in modern history, especially its impact on nesting and wintering birds, the agricultural consequences (from rice to tomatoes to almonds), and how water conservation impacts cities and suburbs. The dry spell that has for over five years caused agricultural crops to wither, key reservoirs to run dry, and homeowners to stop watering their lawns has been hugely critical.
But with the rainfall and snowpack accumulated for the last month, California's biggest reservoirs are finally swelling. In fact, the Sierra Nevada has never seen as much snow, sleet, hail, and rain as during this wettest year on record.
Can the great California drought finally be over?
Yes... or maybe.
In terms of surface water, most of the state is no longer in drought. But nature could still suddenly shut off the faucet, as some water officials suggest. "It could shut down," said Jeanine Jones, interstate resources manager in the Department of Water Resources. "We're about a third of the way into the wettest part of the season. We have to see what happens in the rest of the year."
Right now, things are looking better for birds, agriculture, and people, but water conservation in the long run will "basically become a way of life for us," says Richard Harasick, a high-level authority at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
LET'S STOP INSULTING SWAMPS
Finally, we have an appeal in difficult political times to support swampland.
Alas, President Donald Trump is not the first politician to invoke a metaphor of "draining the swamp" as a political rallying cry. Leaders from both sides of the aisle have used the phrase over the decades, including Ronald Regan and Nancy Pelosi. During the George W. Bush years, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld even committed to "drain the swamp" of terrorism.
Unfortunately, swamps have gotten a bad rap in the process. They should really be considered an extremely valuable part of Nature, as opposed to sites deserving derision, abuse... and draining.
Essentially, a swamp is a forested or semi-forested wetland containing standing water, at least seasonally, or continuously slow-moving water. Swamps can recharge groundwater (e.g., the Everglades) and they can serve as natural water-treatment areas, acting as filters and purifiers. They can also aid in flood control. Swamps are good at capturing and storing carbon, becoming an important resource in the efforts to mitigate climate change. They support a diversity of animal life, including unique and fascinating birds, from waterfowl to long-legged waders and warblers to raptors.
To read about why swamps do not deserve the reputation as useless ecosystems and why the political metaphor needs to be dropped, check out a late December op-ed piece in The Washington Post by Adam Rosenblatt, a Fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science: