On 6 February, a mystery cuckoo was photographed at the West Delray Regional Park in Palm Beach County, Florida. The bird was found by Kyle Matera and Marcello Gomes on the east side of the bike trail along the edge of the lake.They initially thought it was a Black-billed Cuckoo until they viewed the under-tail pattern. Then they changed their ID to Mangrove Cuckoo, although the habitat and location - eight miles inland - seemed somewhat unlikely.
It was only the exchange of photos among experts afterwards that provided a definitive identification. The bird was actually a Dark-billed Cuckoo! This is a species found throughout much of South America, south to northern Argentina and Uruguay. It has also occurred as a vagrant in northern Chile, the Falkland Islands, and Grenada. The bird at West Delray Regional Park was an amazing first record for North America.
The bird was found again on 8 February and was last seen on 10 February.
To see an eBird report and some photos by the original observers, see here:
And for a video takenby Sam Krah, visit:
In the words of Matera and Gomes, "Luckily, we had our cameras...with us. Imagine... if we had no photo equipment with us. This [discovery] would not have materialize[d] whatsoever."
ACCESS MATTERS: LAZULI LESSONS
A regional rarity in Ontario, a rare Lazuli Bunting in an Ottawa backyard offers another classic access problem along with some attendant birding lessons.
When Denise Smith, a grandmother and 30-year daycare provider, did not recognize a small songbird on one of her feeders in late January, she had no idea what would eventually transpire. The bird turned out to be a Lazuli Bunting, a bird that should have been wintering in Mexico. Lazuli Buntings have only previously been found in this part of Ontario 11 times, and never in winter.
Once word of the rare bunting got out, the pilgrimage to the Smith feeder began, with numbers of birders visiting Ottawa's Pinecrest Creek area and viewing the frequented backyard feeder through the adjacent National Capital Commission woods.
Dedicated birders stationed themselves with binoculars and cameras under a willow tree and waited, even as the temperatures plunged below minus-20 degrees with the wind chill.
First it was a handful of observers, but quickly the numbers swelled. Jon Ruddy of Eastern Ontario Birding was involved from the beginning, sending out messages informing birders of the proper place to park, how to access the area, and advice about how to show courtesy to the Smiths. But the situation was gradually getting out of control.
Birders were asked to stay out of site of the house - a house with no curtains on the rear windows - as much as possible in order to give the Smiths complete privacy. The neighbor to the north was also getting "grumpier and grumpier" from all the local birder traffic. And a nearby alternate ground-feeding site (with mixed millet) was even created, but without success.
Jon Ruddy had a "gut impression that over 95 per cent of the visiting birders were sensitive" to the situation, but in the end a few managed to ruin the situation for many. On 5 February, Ruddy recommended that no further visitation to the site be made. Ruddy said the Smiths "had had enough with breaches of their privacy."
Even though birders were given sensible access guidelines in this situation, these were sufficiently ignored to eventually spoil the situation. And when that happened, circumstances for a welcoming visitation were withdrawn. In should be remembered that access options are ultimately the decision of the actual "hosts," not the visiting birders!
You can read more details here, from The Globe and Mail for 11 February:
TIP OF THE MONTH: SONGBIRD NEST BOXES
If you are a suburban homeowner with a modest backyard, or a landowner with substantial habitat or farmland, it's the time of year to review your nest-box situation, time to make sure nest boxes are cleaned out and in good repair, and time to consider whether it's appropriate to locate more nest boxes to your property.
Placing bird houses on your property adds pizazz to the landscape of your surroundings, with the added benefit of attracting cavity-nesting songbirds to your property including bluebirds, chickadees, titmice, wrens, tree swallows, Purple Martins, and more. (Depending on the location, habitat, and latitude of your property, other non-songbird species - e.g., screech-owls and Wood Ducks - might have already begun.)
It's also comforting to know that by providing such artificial cavities- you are really lending a helping hand to cavity nesting birds.
As a final reminder, especially if you are adding another box or two to your backyard habitat, now is the ideal time to start building - or shopping - for any new additions. But be aware that habitat placement, height, and, especially precise dimensions for the nest boxes are essential requirements. For excellent resource information, refer to the NestWatch details available from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at:
BOOK NOTES: PASSERELLIDAE PEOPLE!
When you first pick up Rick Wright's hefty new, 434-page Sparrows of North America, "Peterson Reference Guide Series" by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, you may think it is just another standard "bird family guide", with mini-life-histories of the sparrows, towhees, and juncos. However, you would be wrong. The scores of species accounts for the Passerellidae have no categorized references for measurements, habitat needs, eggs, nests, incubation, or diet. If you are looking for those features in the species accounts, look elsewhere. What Wright gives us in this unique book are not traditional life histories, but rather what one might term "human histories." Yes, the well-illustrated accounts (mainly with high quality photos by Brian Small) do delve into important field identification and range and geographic variation, however these features are not what make this work unique.
What Wright uniquely contributes is an historical approach to the lives of sparrows and their relatives - a history of Passerellidae natural history. Readers are given a solid understanding of the discoverers, researchers, and dedicated observers for each of the taxa presented. (There is even a separate index of people's names - what one might call "the Passerellidae people" - at the end of the book!) Even the sections on range and geographic variation are historical, often providing a summary of the expansions and contractions in ranges over time.
Wright is also bold enough to provide species accounts for taxa not yet considered species! These include for example birds currently considered subspecies of Savannah and Fox Sparrows, as well as a cluster of juncos. Finally, and in line with Wright's independent approach, he has dropped all apostrophes in the species names (e.g. Harris's Sparrow becomes Harris Sparrow) - arguably a curious choice in a book that is so "people" oriented. Regardless, there is much to be learned from this outstanding new contribution from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
POSSESSIVE (PATRONYMIC) BIRD NAMES
The short book review above on Rick Wright's new work is a reminder that there is a movement afoot to abandon the fairly common possessives in English bird names.
Indeed, the removal of the possessive apostrophe and "s" from patronymic bird names - mainly concerning the names of people - would result in new names such as Wilson Snipe, Barrow Goldeneye, Swainson Thrush, Audubon Oriole, and Brewer Blackbird.
The case was made last fall to the Classification Committee for the American Ornithological Society (AOS) which oversees such things. See the arguments presented by Ted Floyd here (p. 62-65):
Needless to say, this is not just about birds. The apostrophe - with or without the accompanying "s" - is increasingly falling into disuse in the current age of text-speak, signage, and character-counting. So choose a side, because this battle will surely continue!
IBA NEWS: THE WALL AGAIN
The tug-of-war over The Wall at the U.S.-Mexican border is still in contention, and the President's declared "emergency" status may have to be resolved by the Supreme Court. Astute observers know that the bird-conservation aspects of The Wall are mainly an issue in the Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV). The status of the southernmost 55 miles of The Wall may have been resolved last month, and explained at the time by the National Wildlife Refuge Association:
Curiously however, The Wall built atop the boundary commission levee in the LRGV, will at times be c. 2 miles from the actual "border" of the Rio Grande. Much of the property (public, private, NGO, etc.) between the wall and the river will be subject to possible ecological clearance (bulldozing), including scores of vital parcels acquired for the Lower Rio Grande NWR (sister NWR to Santa Ana NWR) and previously designed as a habitat "corridor" for birds and other wildlife. Those areas will become a virtual "no man's land." (We don't know what else to call it!)
The fate of sites that rightfully qualify as Important Bird Areas (IBAs) in the LRGV is currently at stake. And instead of advancing new technology and "smart" surveillance at the border itself - at the river - President Trump continues to insist on a showcase vanity project. Yes, we may get to "keep" Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, Santa Ana NWR, and the butterfly preserve, but all the other habitat is at risk.
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:
ENCOURAGING PUBLIC LANDS PACKAGE
But in an effort to end this Birding Community E-bulletin with an upbeat report, we offer the following.
The Natural Resources Management Act, Senate Bill 47, passed the U.S. Senate on 12 February with a vote of 92 to 8, culminating years of negotiations out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Two weeks later, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill, also known as the "Public Lands Package," with a vote of 363 to 62. This constitutes one of the biggest congressional conservation packages of the last decade, if not longer.
The centerpiece of the package was the agreement to permanently authorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), using royalties from off-shore oil and gas drilling for land-acquisition, outdoor, and recreation programs. LWCF had actually expired in September, halting millions of dollars that were going toward public spaces and conservation programs.
While Congress has now reauthorized LWCF in perpetuity, it will not make its spending mandatory. Congressional appropriations for this beloved program have varied widely since its inception in 1965. Indeed, less than half of the $40 billion that has piled up in the fund during its five decades of existence has been spent by Congress on conservation efforts.
Now, a formula will help direct the expenditure of this oil-and-gas revenue. Out of the estimated $900 million available in oil and gas tax revenue annually, $450 million go toward the LWCF - with 3 percent dedicated to sportsman access to lands - and the remaining $450 million going toward a new maintenance fund.
No less than 40 percent of LWCF funds are to be directed to federal land conservation projects, and no less than 40 percent to historically neglected state conservation and recreation programs. In addition, at least 3 percent of the amount appropriated, or $15 million, must be allocated toward recreational public access projects, with a sportsman emphasis.
Eighty percent of the new maintenance fund would go to National Parks deferred maintenance, 10 percent to the Fish and Wildlife Service deferred maintenance, 5 percent to the Bureau of Land Management deferred maintenance, and 5 percent to the Bureau of Indian Affairs education construction backlog.
Other aspects of the huge package also deserve a special mention.
The bill reauthorizes and funds the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act through 2022, which provides habitat protection for more than 380 bird species. Since 2002, the NMBCA has supported 570 conservation projects - including habitat protection, monitoring, research, and education - on more than 4.5 million acres of critical bird habitat across 36 countries.
The package protects 1.3 million acres as official Wilderness, the nation's strictest protection, which prohibits roads and motorized vehicles. It also permanently withdraws more than 370,000 acres of land from mining around two national parks, including Yellowstone. It creates four new national monuments, adds 367 miles of rivers to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, increases the size of National Parks by more than 42,000 acres, and codifies the Every Kid Outdoors program, which helps youngsters from all backgrounds experience our national parks, as well as the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps Act.
In a package that covers 662 pages, needless to say not everything will be perfect. For example, the $450-million limit on LWCF could be too low, that new maintenance fund distribution formula may not be in the best proportions, and an Alaska Native Vietnam Era Veterans Land Allotment provision revives a land privatization effort that had been available multiple times before being rejected in 2002. Of course, in a bill this large, the package is often filled with provisions for pet projects in nearly every state.
Still, with the Trump administration favoring an "energy dominance" approach that prioritizes drilling, mining, and logging, this Natural Resources Management Act of 2019 is capable of reminding us that wildlife and wild places can still engender strong bipartisan support.
By the end of the month, President Trump indicated that he would sign the bill into law.