On 19 April at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park in Key West, located at the very end of the Florida Keys, a group of regular birders to the park discovered and photographed the first Cuban Vireo ever seen in North America. (More on the significance of this event can be found at the very end of this E-bulletin!)
Despite the fact that Cuban Vireo is one of the more common endemic species in Cuba, it has never before been found in the U.S. It is normally widespread throughout much of Cuba where it occurs in bushy thickets, at fairly low elevations.
The Cuban Vireo in Key West remained in the vicinity of a brushy area, perhaps no more than thirty yards in length and adjacent to an off-limits zone filled with park-volunteer RVs.
The vireo was fairly secretive, but was readily able to be located when it was singing, which it sometimes did for many minutes at a time.
Between the bird's discovery and its departure - apparently before the morning of 18 April -literally hundreds of observers came to see or photograph the vireo.
You can find photos and more details here from Mark Hedden:
ACCESS MATTERS: MORE ON THE CUBAN VIREO
The local birders who found the Cuban Vireo asked visiting birders to keep away from the off-limits area of the park, near the area frequented by the bird:
"Please keep in mind that it was seen at the edge of an off limits area. Please respect those limits. The folks who found the vireo bird in the park every day. We have a very good relationship with the park staff. We intend to keep it that way. Please do not go into the... off limits area. If you see someone else intending to do so, politely ask them to refrain."
Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of birders adhered to the request quoted above. Only a few errant visitors strayed into the off-limits zone, and they were kindly asked to back off... which they did.
It is crucial to remember that birder access is largely dependent upon lessons learned from previous experiences. In this case, if birders had misbehaved, it could readily have threatened the access for others.
Remember, after visiting birders leave an area, the birders who remain and who regularly bird the park, refuge, jetty, water-treatment plant, cemetery, or other birding venue, will then have to deal with the consequences of a SLOB (selfish, lazy, obnoxious birder)!
NY CAT COLONY CHALLENGE
For many years there have been two feral cat colonies at Jones Beach State Park, in Nassau County on Long Island, not that far from New York City. The controversy over the feral cats has been going on for at least a decade, and the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) has stepped in to file suit in federal court against the New York Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation (Parks Office) over the presence of feral cat colonies at this highly popular beach.
The two colonies, both supported by volunteers who provide food and water for the cats, consist of about 30 makeshift shelters made of tarps and cinder-blocks. These facilities exist within 1/4 to 2/3 mile to nesting sites of Piping Plovers, a species listed as Threatened on the Atlantic Coast under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Moreover, New York State's own Endangered Species Act lists the plover as Endangered.
ABC has sued state parks commissioner Rose Harvey, claiming that she is violating the federal Endangered Species Act by allowing the cats to stay and thus creating "the likelihood of injury" to the birds. In March of last year, the Parks Office acknowledged the presence of feral cats at Jones Beach and agreed that "our goal should be the removal of feral cats within New York State Parks." But to date no significant action has been taken.
"We regret that legal action is our only recourse," said Mike Parr, ABC's Chief Conservation Officer. "We would far prefer to settle this out of court... The park has placed 'no pets' signs at its parking lots, yet allows cats to be fed in the same areas. It makes no sense to prevent one but allow the other." Grant Sizemore, Director of ABC's Invasive Species Programs, added, "The Endangered plovers are already arriving for the 2016 breeding season and are being placed at an unacceptable risk."
You can find more on this controversy from an article in The Washington Post:
ANOTHER REASON TO KEEP TABBY INDOORS
Last month - in our tip-of-the-month section - we stressed the growing interest and appreciation for watching a wide variety of entertaining and educational eagle-cams on the Internet.
Little did we know then that an eagle-cam drama would unfold with vivid clarity late in April. The link below shows footage of a Bald Eagle nest in the Hays neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where on 26 April some regular eagle-cam viewers were shocked to see the eagle parents feeding an outdoor cat to their chicks.
Warning - The following footage could be unsettling for some viewers:
BOOK NOTES: BIRD FAMILIES
Without a doubt, one of the most impressive and valuable avian publications to recently reach the birding and ornithological marketplace is the magnificent Bird Families of the World: A Guide to the Spectacular Diversity of Birds by David Winkler, Shawn Billerman, and Irby Lovette (Lynx Edicions and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2015). This elegant compendium offers exquisitely-crafted descriptions all of the world's 243 families of birds.
Accompanied by gorgeous photographs and outstanding color plates from the previous published 17-volume Handbook of Birds of the World (Lynx Edicions), this comprehensive and sumptuous synopsis is certain to become a volume that both peripatetic and armchair birders will want to own. To quote co-author David Winkler, "Memorize all the world's avian taxonomic families and you'll enjoy faster bird IDs and global appreciation for bird diversity." This should be on every serious birder's gift list!
IBA NEWS: THREAT TO VIEQUES
Vieques National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), a designated Important Bird Area (IBA) in Puerto Rico, is under threat by certain members of Congress. Vieques is home to nine of 23 regional restricted-range bird species, three of which are island endemics. There are 174 species of resident and migratory birds have already been reported on Vieques. The NWR and its surrounding waters are home to at least four plants and ten animals on the federal Endangered Species List, including the Antillean Manatee and four species of sea turtles (Green, Loggerhead, Hawksbill and the Leatherback).
The threat to the NWR comes from proposed legislation authored by Representative Rob Bishop (R-UT). This would give 3,100 acres of the popular wildlife refuge to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico to sell off to private interests. This is in the western-most part of the 17,771-acre NWR.
Ostensibly, the proposal, part of a larger debt relief draft for Puerto Rico, could help Puerto Rico deal with its debt crisis. At the same time, if the public land give-away succeeds, there will be no safeguards in place to restrict development of this irreplaceable landscape. Moreover, a high-risk precedent will be set for America's public lands.
During a visit to Puerto Rico last month, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said, "I think we need to be very, very careful... Giving up public lands or natural areas to development is not synonymous with economic growth and development." Jewell said that the proposal does not address Puerto Rico's immediate economic challenges. She urged local officials to focus on further developing ecotourism projects to attract more visitors and boost revenue in the face of a 10-year economic slump.
The area that now comprises the Vieques NWR was a U.S. Navy live munitions bombing range for more than 60 years. In 2001, following opposition from local residents to the Navy's use of the island, the Navy halted all bombing. Congress agreed to clean up the land, and the refuge was established. Today, Vieques attracts nearly a quarter million visitors each year.
The land give-away was halted - if only temporarily - when the U.S. House committee abruptly scrapped plans to finish writing a bill intended to address Puerto Rico's $70 billion debt. The issue is likely to come up again this month and again in early summer. House members continue to disagree over the powers of a federal oversight board and other key provisions.
While the Vieques give-away is off the table at the moment, it is likely to come up again. If you would like to voice your opinion in your own words, you can still access a letter format presented by the National Wildlife Refuge Association:
You can find a summary on the significance of Vieques as an IBA here:
For a copy of the recent Birds of Vieques Island Puerto Rico by Daphne deJersey Gemmill, see 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:
NO SPRAGUE'S PIPIT LISTING
In early April, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that listing the Sprague's Pipit under the Endangered Species Act (as Threatened or Endangered) is "not warranted," and the species was accordingly removed from the "candidate list."
While the listing was considered warranted in September 2010, the species was added to the list of candidate species, since its full listing was "precluded by higher-priority actions" related to other species. The threats to the Sprague's Pipit were deemed to include native prairie conversion and energy development, mostly from oil and gas activities.
The Service was required to submit a listing rule or withdrawal by the end of September of this year. The Sprague's Pipit population trend both within and outside of the core breeding area led to the decision to remove the songbird from candidate listing: "Available models indicate that most of the core [breeding] area is unlikely to be converted because it is relatively low value land for row-crop agriculture."
Although little is known about the species' distribution and habitat on wintering grounds, the Service states that available data suggests that the pipit is "more flexible in its habitat use on the wintering grounds in comparison to breeding grounds."
This may or may not be a wise decision. Either way, it should serve as encouragement to maintain and increase efforts to better understand the factors driving grassland bird population dynamics and habitat requirements, particularly with an eye on actual management practices.
You can access the USFWS finding here (look at pp. 54-58):
LOUISIANA WHOOPING CRANE SUCCESS
In our May 2015 issue, we suggested that nesting success for the experiment involving Whooping Cranes in Louisiana might be favorable in 2016:
And now we can report on further optimism for the cranes in Louisiana.
On 11 April, was there was a historic hatch in Jeff Davis Parish, in southwest Louisiana. For the first time in more than 75 years, a wild Whooping Crane was hatched in the state. A second colt - what a young crane is called - hatched from the same nest two days later.
A flock of Whooping Cranes centered at White Lake Conservation Area in Gueydan was reintroduced into Louisiana in 2011. There are just over 40 wild Whooping Cranes in Louisiana, but none of them has ever successfully reproduced - until now. The birds were originally hatched in incubators and raised by people dressed in crane costumes. Researchers were worried that these locally-grown cranes would not know how to function as nesters and parents. But, apparently, parenting came naturally.
While there were crane eggs at nests in 2014 and 2015, none of them hatched. Some were infertile and one nest was lost to flooding.
After three nesting failures this year, there was a fourth attempt that was successful.
Sara Zimorski, a biologist at the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, added: "This couldn't have been done without the assistance of private landowners. The support and cooperation of the many landowners and farmers on whose property the birds spend time is critical to the success of the project.'' In fact, this successful nesting actually took place at a private crawfish farm. (Curiously, crawfish farms have been attractive this year, with multiple crane nests built on these "working wetlands.")
A fifth pair also laid eggs in late March. Researchers are still waiting for results at that nest. And other crane pairs are apparently building nests!
This sort of activity offers hope that Whooping Cranes may once again sustain a population in the state.
For an announcement on the blessed event from Louisiana's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, see here:
BIRDING WHILE BLACK?
Last March, we wrote about an insightful video titled, "The Rules for the Black Birdwatcher" from Drew Lanham, worth a laugh and some serious thinking:
Last month, Jackie Sojico, an independent audio producer, posted the podcast, "Finding the Sweet Spot." This 13 minute video includes excerpts from the "Rules" video and an interview with Drew. Here's the podcast link:
SAGE-GROUSE NO THREAT TO NATIONAL SECURITY
Last May, we wrote about actions by the House Armed Services Committee attempting to prohibit the listing of the Greater Sage-Grouse as Endangered for a decade, on the grounds that a sage-grouse listing would undermine national security, i.e., interfere with activities at bases throughout much of the West. See here:
Last month, two senior Democratic Representatives, Congressmen Adam Smith (WA), the top Armed Services Democrat, and Raul Grijalva (AZ), his counterpart on the Natural Resources Committee, released letters from Department of Defense officials stating that land-use plans intended to protect the sage-grouse would not affect military training, operations, or readiness to any significant degree.
"These letters put to bed once and for all the silly speculation that a few birds could hamstring the greatest fighting force in the history of the world," Grijalva said in a statement.
See here for more:
LATEST CANADIAN WILDLIFE HABITAT STAMP RELEASED
On April 30, the new Canadian Wildlife Habitat Conservation Stamp was released. Each year since 1985, artwork created by a Canadian wildlife artist appears on the Canadian Wildlife Habitat Conservation Stamp. The overwhelming majority of the stamps are bought by hunters to validate their Migratory Game Bird Hunting Permits. But the stamps are also bought by others to raise funds for conservation through Wildlife Habitat Canada.
This effort is nowhere as large or successful as the U.S. program for the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation [Duck] Stamp, but it is still effective. In fact, since 1985, Wildlife Habitat Canada has provided over $50 million in grants to more than 1,500 conservation projects across Canada.
Last year, the artwork for the stamp was of a pair of Mourning Dove painted by W. Allan Hancock of British Columbia. This year, it's of three amazing Surf Scoter by artist Pierre Leduc of Quebec.
More details, including an image of the latest stamp, can be found here:
Details on projects supported through Canadian stamp sales can be reviewed here:
TIP OF THE MONTH: WORKING YOUR "PATCH"
Our Rarity Focus this month dealt with the Cuban Vireo found at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park in Key West.
The bird was found by Carl Goodrich, Mark Hedden, and Lee and Tharon Dunn - birders who regularly bird the park practically every day that they are in Key West. On this particular day they were also joined by their friend, Murray Gardler.
It is this regular, repetitive, and intimate sort of coverage of a favorite location that can occasionally produce a bona fide surprise. This is how the Cuban Vireo was found: knowing what to expect, knowing where to look, and knowing what looks and sounds out-of-the-ordinary.
Such thorough and regular coverage is called "birding your patch" by our British birding colleagues.
It is precisely this kind of patch birding at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park - a small but not an overly impressive location - that has produced such surprises in the last decade as Loggerhead Kingbird, Bahama Mockingbird, Thick-billed Vireo, Shiny Cowbird, Western Spindalis and a myriad of other trans-gulf migrants and "Florida specialties" Admittedly, the park enjoys an optimum location, but it is the park's thorough coverage that is the proof in the pudding!
If you don't have a favorite "patch" of your own, you might seek one out near where you live or work. It's never too late to start that close relationship with a birding site, a place you can easily reach and get to know thoroughly.