On the afternoon of Friday, 19 October, an immature male Black-faced Grassquit was reported by four birders on the north nature trail next to No Name Harbor at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, Miami-Dade County, Florida. By the next day, the grassquit had moved closer to the nearby parking lot, and a red ribbon was placed over the trail to mark where the bird was most frequently seen. Off and on for the next week, the bird was observed in the area, usually not far from the flagging. It was still there as recently as 27 October.
Black-faced Grassquits are tiny, mostly olive-colored birds, with blackish-smudged faces and petite conical finch-bills. They are widespread residents in the Caribbean - except in Cuba where they are largely absent and replaced by the Cuban Grassquit - and in northern South America. The species is very rarely seen in Florida, with only about 16 records since the 1870s. Past occurrences in Florida show no obvious or predictable seasonal pattern. Geographically however, the birds have generally been found in southern-most Florida, with individuals over the last decade and a half occurring at Long Pine Key in the Everglades National Park for most of September 2003; at Bill Baggs State Park in 2013; at Bahia Honda State Park in 2015; and at Long Pine Key in the summer of 2017, where a lone male obligingly built a nest.
The possibility of escaped cage birds potentially complicates evaluating Black-faced Grassquit records, even though the species is only rarely kept in captivity. Most Florida reports may represent legitimate natural vagrants, possibly from the Bahamas.
Photos of last month's bird can be found with this initial eBird report:
TIP OF THE MONTH: LOCATION MARKING:
In the March 2016 Birding Community E-bulletin, we recommended marking the location of an unusual bird with a ribbon or colored tape to assist other birders trying to find the bird.
Given the Rarity Focus described above, we are reminded again of this useful practice.
Indeed, a mega-rare Double-toothed Kite was reported and photographed at Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Are in Hernando County. Florida, on 15 October, and this location was also marked with pink tape. Unfortunately however, except for a morning report the next day, this bird did not reappear for other eager birders.
The use of flagging-tape as a courtesy to help other birders locate the exact site of a bird, really deserves further practice. Surveyor's-tape in a day-glow orange or red color has often been used under similar circumstances. This sort of tape is sold as trail-marking ribbon or engineering-survey tape. But is using this tape for birding purposes "littering"? Perhaps, but with a little searching, conscientious birders and hikers can find and use biodegradable tape. Made of non-woven cellulosic material from wood pulp, such material lasts from three months to a year, in case you forget to remove it. Fortunately, you can even use a pen or pencil to write messages on such biodegradable tape to inform other birders, hikers, or campers with specific birding information.
Regularly carrying a yard or two of this tape in your field pack is probably a good idea. It could come in handy in the event of the discovery of an interesting bird.
DINOSAUR EGG COLOR NOT UNLIKE THAT OF MODERN BIRDS
Birds, of course, can produce a variety of colorful eggs, and biologists have long assumed that colorful eggs were unique to birds. But in 2015, Jasmina Wiemann, and her colleagues at Yale University, discovered pigment molecules in 66-million-year-old dinosaur eggs. These were bluish-green and were probably laid by some type of oviraptor, a bipedal dinosaur. A new study in Nature by researchers at Yale, the American Museum of Natural History, and the University of Bonn, found evidence that seven other species of dinosaurs also produced colorful eggs - again mostly blue-green.
The study posits that colors found in modern bird eggs did not evolve independently, as previously thought, but evolved instead from dinosaurs. "This completely changes our understanding of how egg colors evolved," said the study's lead author, Jasmina Wiemann. "For two centuries, ornithologists assumed that egg color appeared in modern birds' eggs multiple times, independently... Once dinosaurs started to build open nests, exposure of the eggs to visually hunting predators and even nesting parasites favored the evolution of camouflaging eggs' colors, and individually recognizable patterns of spots and speckles."
For more information, see here:
MILWAUKEE BUCKS ARENA
The Milwaukee Bucks professional basketball team has a new arena, Fiserv Forum, and the place includes design features that make the huge structure particularly bird-friendly. This will make it less likely that birds will be killed after flying into the building's large glass windows.
The arena designer, Populous, incorporated bird-friendly features in the arena early in the design process. This occurred after Populous was encouraged to do so by Bryan Lenz, at the time the director of Bird City Wisconsin.
"The Bucks stepped up for birds in a way that no sports franchise ever has," said Lenz, now working for the American Bird Conservancy. Populous had already planned to integrate some green building features into Fiserv Forum, standards set by the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program (LEED).
Bucks President, Peter Feigin, credited Lenz with being persistent to raise additional important bird issues as the building design was coming together. "It was one of the hundred meetings that I took... it lasted five minutes, and I was sold," Feigin said. "He had a very impactful presentation."
The arena's most obvious bird-friendly feature is the use of fritting, a thin ceramic coating on glass. This fritting gives the glass tiny lines that humans can see up close but that do not interfere with the overall transparency of the glass. For birds, however, the fitting reduces the transparency of the glass and signals that the glass serves as a wall that should be avoided.
Other important bird-friendly steps include controlling the lighting of the arena so that it is dark overnight, said Heather Stewart, a Populous designer who focuses on sustainability. The Bucks have incorporated other sustainability features into the arena, such as banning straw, using natural landscaping, composting, and declaring the arena and surrounding area a nonsmoking zone.
Apparently, the bird-friendly measures did not add to the cost of the $524-million arena. "And the Bucks stepped up for birds in a way that no sports franchise ever has," added Lenz.
You can find more details from the American Bird Conservancy here,:
BLACK RAIL PROPOSED ESA LISTING
We have written before about the plight of the Black Rail, a species in possible free-fall. We covered the situation most recently in February of 2017:
Some populations of the Black Rail along the Atlantic coast have dropped by as much as 90 percent. And now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to list the Atlantic subspecies as "Threatened" under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The partially migratory "eastern" Black Rail is known to appear in as many as 36 states, plus multiple territories and countries in the Caribbean and Central and South America. One of four subspecies of Black Rail, the eastern subspecies, although rare, is broadly distributed but highly localized, in salt, brackish, and freshwater marshes.
The California Black Rail subspecies - limited to central and southern California, western Arizona and Mexico - is not included in this listing proposal. Two other subspecies of Black Rail that occur in South America are also not included in the listing proposal.
What we do know today about this small and secretive marsh dweller has largely been scattered throughout the literature. And much of the species' ecology and distribution still remains a mystery. But starting with efforts around the Eastern Black Rail Conservation and Management Working Group in 2009, increasingly more important information has been accumulated. Unfortunately, the new information has not been encouraging.
Threats to the eastern Black Rail include habitat loss due to continued alteration and loss of wetland habitats, land management practices that engage in fire suppression, grazing, haying and mowing, and impounding of wetlands. Not inconsequentially, projected sea level rise and associated tidal flooding, increasing temperatures, decreasing precipitation, and increasing drought and severe weather events are all likely to have serious impacts on eastern Black Rail populations and their habitat.
The Service is proposing a rule under the ESA's Section 4(d) that would tailor protections for the bird. These protections would include prohibiting certain activities in known eastern Black Rail habitat during critical time periods, such as during nesting and brooding seasons, and post-breeding flightless molt periods.
The Service will accept comments received or postmarked on or before December 10, 2018. Information on how to submit comments is available here:
You need to search for docket number "FWS-R4-ES-2018-0057"
ACCESS MATTERS: BLACK RAIL LIMITATIONS?
If you read carefully under the proposed rule recommendations by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service for Black Rails (summarized above), you will come across comments on "human disturbance" that relate directly to birder behavior and birder access.
The USFWS at this point is not designating critical habitat for the eastern Black Rail due to concern that identifying such areas might attract birders seeking out these shy and elusive birds, and placing additional stress on them: "Some State resource managers and researchers have expressed concern that releasing locations of eastern Black Rail detections may increase human disturbance and harassment of the subspecies."
The Service is aware that locations of rare birds are often "posted online on local birding forums or eBird, leading to an increased number of people visiting the location in an attempt to see or hear the bird." Also, the easy availability and use of vocalized calls or audio recordings also raises red flags for consideration.
We know that for much of the northern range of the species - from Massachusetts to North Carolina - the populations have 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 rails or extremely discouraging numbers of rails in recent years. What role do birders play in that situation? How does birder presence compare to other negative factors in the decline in the species in the East? Is it "easier" to put the blame on birders, rather than on rising sea level? Does the mere identification of Black Rail sites put the birds in jeopardy?
Through the public comment process (see above), the Service is also requesting information on the threats of "taking" or other human activity, including the impacts of birders to the eastern Black Rail and its habitat, and the extent to which critical habitat designation might increase those threats.
Clearly, this is a case where ethics, behavior, science, and access combine... or collide!
CACAO AND CARRIBEAN CONSERVATION
While most of us are familiar with bird-friendly coffee, we don't often recognize bird-friendly chocolate.
A Caribbean project developed by the National Aviary, based in Pittsburgh, is working with farmers and communities in the Dominican Republic on developing bird-friendly shade farming techniques and dispelling myths regarding bird threats to their crops. The Dominican Republic is ideal for growing cacao (the source of chocolate), and has become the world's largest producer of organic cacao, which requires a shade-tree canopy to maintain organic certification.
Unfortunately, and for many years, conflicts have existed between farmers and wildlife, with some farmers eliminating birds they deemed threatening to their cacao livelihood. The endemic Hispaniolan Woodpecker is a classic victim of this cultural misinformation. Others birds, such as owls and diurnal raptors, are hunted due to the perception that these birds are evil.
The new initiative by the National Aviary is the first-of-its-kind effort to educate the farming communities about the benefits of bird-friendly cacao agriculture, the importance of the vital shade-growing element in growing cacao, and the ills of hunting Hispaniolan Woodpeckers and other birds in the Dominican Republic.
Besides offering educational conservation activities to schoolchildren and communities, the National Aviary workshops train cacao agricultural technicians, tourism guides, and famers on the importance of biodiversity and the role that diverse vegetation within cacao plantations has in supporting bird life.
You can find more information here:
PATUXENT WHOOPING CRANE PROGRAM ENDING
For many decades, scientists and staff at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland have developed the famous Whooping Crane captive breeding program. Beginning in 1967, the dedicated folks at the center began to nurture a dozen eggs gathered from the nests of this species, seemingly on the edge of extinction. There were only about 40 Whooping Cranes left in the world at that time.
The successful production of eggs and young at Patuxent has been vital in the efforts to save these elegant cranes. But now that effort is coming to an end. The Trump Administration cut the 50-year-old crane breeding program's $1.5 million budget, and by the end of this year, the project will end.
The remaining 75 Whooping Cranes at Patuxent will be loaded into crates and sent to new homes in Louisiana, Texas, and Alberta. Other captive breeding institutions will assume the captive breeding efforts with a focus on further reintroducing birds into the wild.
See here for more information:
FARM BILL DISAPPOINTMENTS
As some readers may know, Congress was unsuccessful in passing a new Farm Bill prior to the expiration of the previous Farm Bill on 30 September. Since most Farm Bill conservation programs were only authorized to operate from FY 2014 through FY 2018, there is no statutory authority for these programs to take new enrollments, sign new contracts, or engage in partnership agreements without some legislative action.
Farm Bill expiration status for major conservation programs with wildlife/bird implications include the following:
- Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) - No new enrollments, although rental and cost-share payments will continue on existing contracts.
- Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) - No new enrollments or re-enrollments, but existing contracts continue.
- Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) - Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2018 extended authority for EQIP through FY 2019, with FY 2019 guidance under review.
- Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) - Restoration and other activities - including new agreements -are limited to carryover funding.
- Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) - No new partnership agreements. Existing projects will continue with limitations.
Although Congress is now on recess until after the November mid-term elections, Farm Bill Conference Committee leads and their staff continue to meet. Reports indicate that the conservation and forestry titles are still in play. The Conference Committee may yet have a "final" bill ready after the November elections, but prior to the scheduled end of the current legislative session in mid-December.
But will a Lame Duck Congress actually be able to finish the job?
RIP: DAVID PASHLEY
We don't often include obituaries in the Birding Community E-bulletin, but this month we have to recognize David Pashley who passed away on the last day of October. For a quarter century, David was instrumental in the way we looked at bird conservation. Wherever the conservation of birds was being discussed, wherever the formulation of conservation strategy was being formulated, it was likely that David Pashley was nearby, if not, literally, in the room.
Curiously, David did not remember ever looking seriously at a bird until he took a required ornithology class in college. That altered the direction of his life and the way bird conservation was to develop in this hemisphere. By the time David found his home at the American Bird Conservancy, the die was cast.
David was central to the development of two important bird conservation initiatives: Partners in Flight (PIF) and the North American Bird Conservation Initiative (NABCI). As Vice President for U.S. Conservation Partnerships at ABC, David contributed to almost every migratory bird Joint Venture (JV) in some way, including helping to establish several of them. David was influential in evolving the JV approach from an exclusive waterfowl focus to effective partnerships dedicated to "all bird conservation." He was a champion of the JV system and approach, and he worked to "fill in those white spaces," helping to ensure there was thorough JV coverage across the entire U.S. Moreover, he was passionate in his inclusive vision to protect birds throughout the Western Hemisphere.
Perhaps most of all, David was a big-picture thinker. He was a master of inclusion, a tireless worker to integrate the efforts of government agencies, non-governmental organizations, and creative individuals on varied issues from bird monitoring to effective funding. He helped tie it all together, and he leaves behind a tremendous bird conservation legacy.