Our rarity of the month may be one of the strangest we have covered in years.
Last spring, on 24 April, an immature Great Black Hawk was seen and photographed at South Padre Island, Texas. The sighting was the first-ever for this species in the U.S. Local birders found the raptor at the Valley Land Fund migratory bird stopover lots on South Padre. It was observed for about 20 minutes, mobbed by Laughing Gulls, Great-tailed Grackles, and even a Peregrine Falcon. But it was not seen again, despite intensive searches. And that was it, or so everyone thought!
The Great Black Hawk is a raptor typically found from coastal Mexico south through Peru and northeastern Argentina. For a raptor, this species has surprisingly long legs, standing about two feet tall and with a wingspan of 40 to 50 inches. In its native habitat, it is often found near coastal wetlands, forests, and open woodlands, where it feeds on reptiles, rodents, bats, birds, fish, and amphibians.
Amazingly, on 6 August, an immature Great Black Hawk was photographed on Maddox Pond Road in Biddeford, York County, Maine. Remarkably, according to observers who carefully compared photographs, it was the same bird that was found in April in Texas. The hawk was relocated at 6 p.m. on August 8 in a pine tree on the west side of a pond north of Lily Pond Road and observed by at least a dozen birders. Continuing at first light on 9December at Lily Pond Road, the raptor flew slightly west into some trees where some observers saw it from nearby Elizabeth Road. And that was it again! Or so everyone thought.
Then, after months of no sightings, the Great Black Hawk was once again relocated and photographed on 29 October at the Eastern Promenade, a public park and popular trail in the eastern portion of Portland, Maine. Once again, the bird was not found there again, and that was it. Or so everyone thought.
Then after nearly a month, on 28 November, it appeared about two miles away from the Eastern Prominade, at Deering Oaks Park in downtown Portland. Deering Oaks is a popular 55-acre public park, located just west of downtown Portland. (The park is significant enough to be included on the National Register of Historic Places.)
This time the Great Black Hawk finally seemed to settle into the southwest corner of the park, regularly feasting on the abundant squirrels in the park, although at times it would be chased off by a resident Red-tailed Hawk before returning to the park's grove of large evergreens. At times it would leave the park for part of a day; however, the hawk generally remained in Deering Oaks Park (or within a few blocks of the park) for many visiting birders through December.
Eventually, the many photographs taken of the bird, especially from Deering Oaks Park, helped determine that the bird was of the Middle American subspecies Buteogallus urubitinga ridgwayi (found from Mexico south to Panama). It was a combination of the tail-pattern and the skin color of the lores in front of the eyes that helped determine the subspecies.
To see some excellent photos and an accompanying narrative about the bird from the Associated Press from the last day in November, see:
ACCESS MATTERS: GREAT BLACK HAWK LESSONS
Portland's Great Black Hawk provided some essential lessons in the realm of access and sharing observations of rarities - both positive and negative. When a rare bird appears in a popular urban park, there are unique factors to consider. Birder and bird-photographer behavior can be combined with casual passers-by, kids playing soccer, curious non-birders who heard the news, and yapping dogs. All these factors were in play at Deering Oaks Park in Portland.
Early on, the Park Division of Portland was notified of the bird's presence and, in response, put up signage recommended by Maine Audubon to inform people in the area about giving the hawk space. Multiple city signs were posted in the vicinity of the evergreen grove, requesting that visitors keep at least 200 feet away from the hawk.
Most people kept to the rules, but at times a few photographers crept closer. At the same time there was more than one occasion when photographers were at a respectful distance when the bird actually chose to fly from its original perch to a perch directly above the heads of those same photographers! Unfortunately, these photographers were put in a position that looked extremely - yet unintentionally - intrusive. Also, some non-birder park-users were blissfully unaware of what was going on and simply walked through the area.
Media coverage, additionally attracted many non-birders, and birders used the opportunity to teach them about the bird and the space it needed. It was also an opportunity to encourage visitors to digiscope the bird rather than walk right up to with cell phones in hand.
The teachers at King Middle School, a school virtually across the street from the hawk's regular haunt, did a fine job bringing students, most of whom really appreciated getting to see the bird. Needless to say, scopes and binoculars were shared.
Obviously access restrictions at a public park are not easy to impose, and appropriate signage is really the only viable option. And ultimately, neither is very effective when the bird in question flies and perches wherever it wants!
In any case, in Portland the signage worked well, and the overwhelming majority of visitors - birders and non-birders alike - cooperated nicely.
BEYOND STANDARD RANGE MAPS
Last month, the fine folks at the Cornell Lab's eBird introduced a new class of maps that reveal where North American birds are, and how they are faring, at a finer scale than has ever been produced before.
It's called "eBird Status and Trends," and it uses data and models to estimate bird abundance every 1.7 miles and every week of the year across most of Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. Applying sightings from more than 12 million eBird checklists and satellite data from NASA, the project covers 107 North American species, with more to be added later this year.
The eBird team summarized the change succinctly: "Suddenly, a range map doesn't have to be based on a single expert's knowledge, drawn with opaque ink, and printed on a map the size of a postage stamp. It can be alive: driven by millions of data points, intricately detailed down to the county level and below, and moving to show the way birds move with the seasons."
The results go far beyond standard range maps. The new maps show abundance (not just occurrence), giving birders, conservationists, and scientists the ability to distinguish a species' strongholds from areas where it may be scarce. The maps are created with models that include environmental data, which means eBird Status and Trends can reveal which habitats are best for finding a given species from week to week throughout the year.
All the maps, graphs, animations, and other data are free for anyone to view, and with a free eBird account you can even download them.
The free availability reflects eBird's guiding principles: collecting data that the birdwatching public voluntarily provides and transforming it into products that benefit conservationists and scientists. This way, users can enjoy their pastime while actually making the world a better place for birds.
You can take a closer look at some of the project's main features here:
IBA NEWS: RECENT WHSRN SITE IN SONORA
Toward the end of last year, the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (
WHSRN) Executive Office announced a new WHSRN site in Mexico, the Bahía de Lobos.
Bahía de Lobos is in the middle of the western side of the Gulf of California, on the southern coast of the state of Sonora. This coastal bay is located in the Islands of the Gulf of California-Sonora Flora and Fauna Protection Area. Bahía de Lobos received WHSRN designation for supporting more than 20,000 shorebirds annually, especially Snowy Plovers, Western Sandpipers, Marbled Godwits, and the roselaari subspecies of the Red Knot.
The bay covers about 29,158 acres, with related estuaries and coves spanning another 11,120 acres. The lagoon is framed by Isla de Lobos, a narrow island of 4,820 acres.
Six-to-seven-foot tides at Bahía de Lobos expose large areas of mud and sandflats at low tide, creating critical foraging habitat for shorebirds. Many of the shorebird species using Bahía de Lobos come from as far away as northern Alaska.
With this recent designation, Bahía de Lobos becomes the 19th WHSRN site in Mexico and the 106th site in the hemispheric system.
It also blends in nicely with nearby regional Important Bird Area (IBA) sites.
See here for more information on this WHSRN site:
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:
FARM BILL - GOOD NEWS
The Farm Bill, formally known as the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (H.R. 2), passed the U.S. Senate on 11 December by a bipartisan vote of 87 to 13, and the House passed it the following day by a decisive vote of 369 to 47. President Trump signed it on 20 December.
The 800-page Farm Bill agreement - which added up to $867 billion over 10 years - had some fine portions for wildlife and conservation, including the following:
- Conservation Compliance and Sodsaver - Established in 1985, this continues eligibility for most federal farm programs linked to standard soil and wetlands conservation practices. It denies farm program benefits for planting on former wetlands or draining a wetland to enable crop production. It can be crucial for waterfowl, shorebirds, and grassland birds.
- Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) - The enrollment cap was raised from 24 million to 27 million acres, and CRP continues to benefit high-value wetlands and water quality practices. CRP pays farmers to remove some acres from production over multi-year periods to create wildlife habitat. New revision would also direct benefits to more critical grassland acres in strategic regions. Many species, as varied as Northern Shoveler, Northern Bobwhite, and Henslow's Sparrow should benefit. Significantly, this is the first time CRP acres have increased in the Farm Bill since 1996.
- Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) - Increases total funding by $2 billion over 10 years and allows for greater participation. There has developed a high demand for ACEP dollars to create wetland and agricultural easements. This portion also provides flexibility for grazing and wetland restoration on Wetland Reserve Easements to maximize wetland and wildlife benefits.
- Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) - Only created in 2014, RCPP is substantially increased in annual funding from $100 million to $300 million along with making improvements. This will allow for the creation and expansion of successful projects that target species with the greatest need. These include Golden-winged Warbler, Bobolink, and Tricolored Blackbird.
- Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) - The percentage of EQIP funds that will benefit wildlife has doubled, from 5 percent to 10 percent, providing an estimated $200 million per year. This specifically has new opportunities for grassland and forest habitats and can promote valuable post-harvest flooding.
- Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP) - The new Farm Bill reauthorizes funding for VPA-HIP at $50 million over the life of the Farm Bill. This is an important program for public access on specified lands that receive Farm Bill habitat benefits.
- Hemp - Also buried in the Farm Bill was a provision (Section 10113, titled "Hemp Production") to allow industrial hemp - for oil and fiber use in particular - to be produced and marketed in the U.S. This also could mark the potential revival of hemp seed as a backyard bird food.
Fortunately, the Farm Bill final agreement also dropped a number of harmful provisions impacting federal forests, endangered species, and dangerous pesticides that could threaten millions of birds each year.
For more details, see the Wildlife Management Institute summary:
GETTING MUCH CLOSER TO HEMP BIRDFOOD
As mentioned above, the Farm Bill passed with bipartisan support, and it includes a section on industrial hemp. It defines hemp - a close relative of marijuana that can be used to make a variety of products - as an agricultural commodity and removes its inclusion as an illegal drug. In Section 10113, the Farm Bill eliminates "hemp" from the definition of marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act and creates an exemption for the miniscule amount of psychoactive THC found in hemp.
This is important because it frees this particular cannabis from onerous restrictions, and specifically frees it up for creative production - including as birdseed.
In the meantime, Minnesota is moving quickly to experiment with industrial hemp seed as bird food. We mentioned this in our February 2018 issue:
The Minnesota Ornithologists' Union has teamed up with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and the owner of All-Seasons Wild Bird Stores Ltd to carry out a wild bird food preference study to validate the value of hemp as a desirable and high-energy food for birds.
The bird-feeding experimentation is moving well. Dr. David L. Horn of Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, is working on the results of Phase I testing that began in late summer 2018. Phase II begins this month with a structured pattern of observations at three feeding locations. This will be complimented by observations of 22 volunteers throughout Minnesota who will be tabulating results. All observations should be completed by February 15.
The project has also generated interest from Minnesota farmers. It is a crop that can be grown locally; it does not require use of pesticides or insecticides for production, and the high oil and protein content of the seeds make them a very desirable food for the birds.
According to Carrol Henderson, recently retired from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, feeder-hosts have already documented over two dozen species of birds feeding on the hemp seed. So far, House Sparrows and squirrels have shown little interest in hemp. The final results of the bird-feeding experiments will hopefully tell us more.
THE SHUTDOWN AND US
There seems to be no real end in sight to the partial government shutdown that appears likely to persist well into the New Year as the White House and Democrats remain far apart on any possible solution. As the new 116th Congress convenes, there does not appear to be any clear path to resolve the issues over the Border Wall, a concern we've covered multiple times because of the way it could impact the Lower Rio Grande Valley.,.
As bird enthusiasts this shutdown also means putting limitations on access and activities at National Wildlife Refuges, National Parks, National Forests, and BLM facilities. As such, we could easily have put this particular news item under our regular "Access Matters" feature above. But unfortunately, it also goes well beyond access.
This shutdown has also created terrible stress for over 350,000 employees who are furloughed andwho won't see paychecks for the duration of this event. Beyond the land-agency-based workers, it also includes, for example, researchers and scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) who do important bird-related work.
Our colleagues at the National Wildlife Refuge Association are collecting stories over how the shutdown is impacting volunteer and associated activities at NWRs across the country. Congressional offices have been asking, "How is this impacting the people who support refuges, the refuges themselves, and the wildlife on these refuges?"
If you have something to contribute on this topic, send your comments: