The presence of a rare hummingbird, the Mexican Violetear, at the popular Quinta Mazatlan World Birding Center in McAllen, Texas, from 7 - 18 June would normally have assured this species its profile for our monthly rarity focus. After all, it was a bona fide rarity that was accessible to many birders throughout much of the period.
However, this month we decided to bend our own rules and our own standards for what qualified as the rarity focus for June. This month we've actually chose a place, not a species.
The place is Alaska. To be more accurate, the exterior outposts of Alaska that only some lucky birders will visit in June, hoping to encounter some Siberian or other Asian rare bird. June was particularly outstanding at these outposts this year, as the following incomplete list will attest:
St. Paul Island
- Common Greenshank, Gray-streaked Flycatcher, Common Sandpiper, Terek Sandpiper, Eyebrowed Thrush, Long-toed Stint, Falcated Duck, Red-flanked Bluetail, Olive-backed Pipit, Oriental Cuckoo, Lesser Sand-Plover, Common House-Martin, and White-tailed Eagle
- Dark-sided Flycatcher, Gray-streaked Flycatcher, and Common Snipe
- Common Sandpiper, Great Knot, Lesser Sand-Plover, and Common Cuckoo
- Temminck's Stint, Tundra Bean-Goose, Common Rosefinch, and Rufous-tailed Robin
- Little Stint
And it's true that you could not jump in your car, or even take a short flight, to get to most of these locations to enjoy these birds. In fact, the reason that these locations are called "outposts" is because most are remote and, usually not on the route to anywhere else!
But for birders who could visit these remote places, June was a remarkable month. They were richly rewarded with some spectacular rarities... beyond those wonderful and expected Alaskan-based specialties.
MBTA 100: AN UNHAPPY BIRTHDAY?
This month, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) turns 100 years old. The treaty, ratified in 1918, makes it unlawful without a waiver to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill or sell birds listed as migratory birds. This act has long served as a safety net for North American migratory birds while at the same time allowing room for necessary development activities.
The MBTA is the centerpiece for bird protection in the U.S. Previous laws - such as the Lacey Act of 1900 and the Weeks-McLean Law of 1913 - constitute the necessary legal build-up to the MBTA. And subsequent legislation - such as the Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1929, the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act of 1934, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 - rest on the foundation of the MBTA. These Acts have been thoughtfully amended by Congress through the years, but never undermined. At least not until now.
That MBTA foundation has been seriously cracked with a December 2017 Department of the Interior Solicitor's opinion. This opinion, undercuts decades of cooperation that have benefited both migratory birds and our societal needs. Now, any lawful activity that impacts migratory birds or their habitat is considered incidental and does not require actions to avoid, minimize, or mitigate for impacts to the birds. This is a major challenge to the underpinning of bird conservation laws in the U.S.
The treaty initially covered only the U.S. and Canada. It survived a serious legal challenge in 1920 and was expanded in 1936 to include Mexico. Into the 1970s, it was further expanded to involve Japan and the then the Soviet Union (now Russia). In 1972, an amendment was added that protected an additional 32 families of birds, and in 2004 most naturally occurring native species in North America were ultimately included.
Now the whole framework of bird-conservation laws is at risk. Considering the serious stakes involved, the MBTA reaches its 100th birthday in a decidedly unhappy state.
Fortunately, in the last few months, a number of conservation and environmental organizations have filed litigation challenging this reinterpretation of the MBTA. Support for this litigation along with Congressional appeals are being seen as a possible path to return to the matured intent of the MBTA.
TIP OF THE MONTH: JUST GET A STAMP!
In line with the less-than-encouraging report on the MBTA, the Trump Administration is more than reluctant to secure any additional Federal lands for refuges, parks, and monument designation, regardless of their value to the birds we appreciate. It is unlikely that we should expect much in the way of growing acquisitions in these arenas.
There is one exception, however, one that was established with the revision of the "Duck Stamp" act in 1958 and subsequent amending legislation. Simply put, monies collected through the sale of what is now called the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, must be spent on fee-title and easement properties for wetlands, bottomlands, and grasslands associated with the National Wildlife Refuge System.
The new stamp (for July 2018 through June 2019) was released in late June. The stamp cost is $25, and it contains an image by Bob Hautman of a pair of Mallards about to land in the water. The stamp, which constitutes a federal license to hunt waterfowl and which is also a free pass to any National Wildlife Refuge that charges for entry, will raise approximately $40 million this year for bird-habitat conservation.
See here for details on the new stamp:
IBA NEWS: BONAIRE INCLUSION
On the Caribbean island of Bonaire, a "special municipality" of the Netherlands, there are currently six Important Bird Areas (IBAs): Washington-Slagbaai National Park, Dos Pos, Washikemba-Fontein-Onima, Klein Bonaire, Lac Bay, and Pekelmeer Saltworks. Besides being an IBA, the Pekelmeer site has also been designated as a wetland of international importance and is listed as Ramsar Site no. 200.
Pekelmeer's Saltworks at the southern end of Bonaire covers 6,850 hectares, but most (3,700 hectares) are run by Cargill Salt Bonaire B.V. - a privately-owned salt production facility. It is this facility that recently became a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN) site. The location now has triple designation: IBA, Ramsar, and WHSRN.
In support of the last designation, the saltworks provide valuable habitat for more than 20,000 shorebirds of 17 different species that visit this large wetland complex every year, thus qualifying it to join the network at the "Regional" level of importance. This large concentration of shorebirds includes at least 1% of the biogeographic population of Short-billed Dowitcher and the threatened rufa subspecies of Red Knot.
This is another fine reminder that "our shorebirds" (like many other migratory species) need to rely on a full system of breeding, stopover, and wintering sites, many of which extend far beyond our North American borders, and well beyond those range-maps in our field guides!
This WHSRN designation was made possible through the cooperation of Cargill Salt Bonaire B.V. and a group of dedicated researchers and volunteers. Lisa Sorenson, Executive Director of BirdsCaribbean, said, "We are very grateful for the support we received from Cargill and our partners and volunteers that enabled us to complete this work. We are especially thankful to Environment and Climate Change Canada for funding support for the surveys, and to Manomet [Center for Conservation Science] for their encouragement and support of our nomination."
For more on the WHSRN designation:
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:
BETTY PETERSEN PROJECT
And while we are describing bird conservation in a part of the Caribbean, it is appropriate to announce the "Betty Petersen Fund for Conservation" project, recently launched by BirdsCarribbean. This fund will provide competitive grants to groups or individuals working to engage and empower communities and stakeholders in the Caribbean to both protect and sustainably benefit from their birds. The Fund and its grants will be administered by BirdsCaribbean.
For nearly 25 years Betty Petersen directed the Birder's Exchange (BEX) program, a program that helped to empower and support bird researchers, guides, and organizations working throughout Latin America in bird conservation. Her successes in this arena were many and varied, and in 2006 she was honored by an Argentine conservation group for "Ideas that Change the World." Accordingly, it seems most appropriate to name this new bird conservation project after the late Betty Petersen.
For more information about BirdsCaribbean and the Betty Petersen Fund for Conservation, see:
FIVE THREATS - FROM BIRDLIFE
Last month, BirdLife International announced its "top five threats to birds." Some were predictable and others less-so:
Illegal Hunting and Trapping
Not only does BirdLife explain and describe these five problems, the organization also presents accompanying solutions. These range from wildlife-friendly farming practices (including refraining from using pesticides and herbicides), bold reforestation, invasive eradication efforts (especially on islands), new campaigns against illegal bird-cage trade, and the promotion of carbon sinks.
The five problems - and their solutions - are deftly presented on the BirdLife website:
BOOK NOTES: APPRECIATING OSPREYS
Rob Bierregaard, long-time Osprey devotee, has written a fine book, Belle's Journey: An Osprey Takes Flight (Charlesbridge, 2018) with Kate Garchinsky providing the illustrations. It is a 100+-page book written and designed, essentially for middle-schoolers, but equally appealing for adults.
Presented in an easy-to-follow and authoritative style, this nonfiction tale recounts the story of a young Osprey, called Belle, from her early days on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, to her first migration to Brazil and back, a journey of over 8,000 miles.
Bierregaard uses the real-life Belle, whose migration he tracked, to provide a look at migrating Ospreys, including her risks and successes in the process. Like several similar accounts geared for the same audiences but describing different bird species, this engaging title is sure to capture the interest and fancy of young people and interested adults alike. We heartily recommend this title.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has initiated its 5-year status reviews of 35 species under the amended Endangered Species Act of 1973. This procedure is an "assessment of the best scientific and commercial data available at the time of the review." By the time you read this, the deadline for the consideration of new information will be upon us. One of the options being considered is whether or not to propose reclassifying Ivory-billed Woodpecker as extinct.
In many cases, the Service will only have to update previous 5-year reviews, but it could possibly conduct a species status assessments (SSA) for some species. An SSA is a compilation of the best available information on the species, as well as each species' ecological needs based on environmental factors. The SSA also describes the current condition of the species' habitat and demographics. And, finally, an SSA forecasts the species' response to probable future scenarios of environmental conditions and conservation efforts. The SSA uses the conservation biology principles of resiliency, redundancy, and representation (considered jointly the "3 Rs") to evaluate the current and future condition of the species. This includes the species' ability to sustain populations in the wild over time.
In the context of the failure to prove - without a doubt - the presence of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the American Southeast over many years, the Service may at long last clear the way to reclassifying the status of the species as extinct.
Yes, this species may finally be determined, officially, to be gone. Or it may not!
OUR TOURISM CARBON FOOTPRINT
A recent study in Nature Climate Change by six co-authors, "The carbon footprint of global tourism," found that tourism now accounts for 8% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. This is three times higher than some previous estimates. Those studies estimated that tourism could account for 2.5 - 3% of carbon emissions. But those studies mostly took into account emissions from air travel. The latest study includes other factors (e.g., local travel, shopping, and food).
Some travelers (Canadians, Swiss, Dutch, Danes, and Norwegians) exert a higher footprint in places other than their own countries. "Travelling is largely a high-income affair," the researchers wrote. And the urge to travel is spreading as people get richer. Demand for exotic trips is booming in Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and Russia.
"Neither responsible travel behaviour nor technological improvements have been able to rein in the increase of tourism's carbon footprint," the researchers say. Since ecotourism and avitourism are not immune from these travel-trends, some mitigating habitat funding (including those where birds specifically benefit) among these travelers probably deserves a serious revisiting.
FARM BILL FRACAS
And with our intent to focus on some legislation to end most issues, we visit the fracas over the Farm Bill.
When so much is included in the U.S. Farm Bill, the attempts to squeeze out some conservation elements can be truly daunting. The contentious wrangling can be blinding. For example, disagreements over immigration policy and work requirements for SNAP ("food stamps") recipients caused a defeat of a proposed Farm Bill in the U.S. House in late May. In the time since, trade differences have arisen to influence U.S. agricultural trade with neighbors in North America and markets overseas. Still, in the second week of June, leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee agreed on a bipartisan Farm Bill that would keep the 2014 farm law largely in place while at least avoiding a partisan fight over food stamps. But with the House and Senate simply behaving differently, it's almost guaranteed that the squabbling over the Farm Bill will continue through the summer.
Getting down to the conservation programs - those important for birds - inside the Farm Bill is frustrating when issues mentioned above prevent a decent hearing for the conservation programs.
At this point, an oversupply of commodities, combined with the uncertainty in export potential, presents an opening to encourage taking marginal lands out of production to achieve some conservation benefits. Fortunately, some members of Congress recognize the need for an additional 6-16 million acres of set-aside land. The Senate version of the Farm Bill would allow the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to expand to 25 million acres, up a million acres from the limit set by the 2014 Farm Bill. Some other House Farm Bill provisions would even raise the cap to 29 million acres, a potential boon to grassland species.
But there are other complexities involved. There are attempts to preempt local legislation restricting pesticides, such as those on neonicotinoids, toxic to birds and pollinators. Other proposed pesticide provisions would remove pesticides entirely from review under the Endangered Species Act. Still other provisions in House drafts could recklessly roll back the Clean Water Act protections, allowing farmers to spray pesticides on or near water resources - including public drinking water supplies. This is a clear health threat to humans as well as birds and other wildlife. (Currently, the law requires a permit.)
Basic bird-and-wildlife provisions of the Farm Bill - protecting wetlands and grasslands in particular - will get short shrift until some other overarching issues are resolved. Even then, smart wildlife conservation in the bill is certainly not guaranteed.