A Swallow-tailed Gull, only the third record-ever for North America, was found and photographed by Ryan Merrill on the morning of 31 August at Carkeek Park in Seattle Washington. It continued to be seen in the general vicinity of Kayu Kayu Ac Park, Edmonds Marina, the Everett Marina, and the Point Wells Pier, until 11 September when it could no longer be re-located.
Swallow-tailed Gulls are nocturnal feeders. Accordingly, this bird probably foraged at night offshore in deep Puget Sound waters, returning to the Seattle shore to roost for the day.
The only two previous records for North America are one in June 1985 present for a couple days at Point Pinos and Elkhorn Slough, Monterey County, California, and the other on 3 March 1996 observed at sea near the Farallon Islands, off San Francisco, California.
Swallow-tailed Gulls occupy a very limited world range, breeding primarily on the Galapagos Islands and on Malpelo Island off Columbia. The species' non-breeding distribution is limited almost entirely to the Humboldt Current off western South America. Its world population is estimated at about 35,000 birds.
Considering the distance that this bird had to travel if it arrived in the Seattle area on its own, is it possible that the bird was ship-assisted. Is it also remotely possible that a zoo housing Swallow-tailed Gulls lost a bird? Less likely, to be sure, but not impossible.
Regardless of these speculations, this beautiful gull entertained scores of birders who made an effort to see it. This record represented the most northerly report of Swallow-tailed Gull ever recorded.
For a description of the bird and accompanying photos taken by Ryan Merrill, visit:
ACCESS MATTERS: WHERE ARE THE DOUGHNUTS?
On 10 August a White-winged Tern was discovered at Nessmuk Lake, south of Wellsboro in Tioga County, Pennsylvania, where it remained through 13 August. Nessmuk Lake is a 60-acre impoundment owned by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and managed by the Fish and Boat Commission for public fishing and boating. The lake is maintained by the Borough of Wellsboro. As a result, the site provided easy access for birders wishing to see this handsome rarity. For background and images related to this bird's discovery, see:
The fact that White-winged Tern is a rarity anywhere in North America and that it was "a first" for Pennsylvania might have been story enough for last month's "Rarity Focus," but it was ultimately "bumped" by the discovery of a Little Stint in Massachusetts. Nonetheless, we want to highlight another feature of going in pursuit of certain rarities and an aspect of birder access that is sometimes neglected.
This is about welcoming the visitors - not the avian visitors, but the human visitors. A logbook at Nessmuk Lake revealed that there were well over 250 people who came to view the White-winged Tern during its four-day visit. The local Tiadaghton Audubon Society provided a warm welcome to visitors. The local Audubon Society members conducted two special field trips on Saturday 12 August - for anyone interested in the birds of the area, including the rare White-winged Tern. At times, some club members even provided doughnuts for the folks who arrived to see the rare tern. Interestingly, not all these visitors were dedicated birders; some were simply regional residents who happened to hear about "that special bird at the lake."
These actions illustrate what a good welcoming plan can accomplish! It's something that other groups should consider when dealing with the fortuitous appearance of a rarity near home. It simply enhances the "access" experience. Perhaps someday you too may be able to say: "Welcome to our rare bird. Have a look through my scope, and have a doughnut!"
IBA NEWS: NEW WHSRN SITE IN MEXICO
In the last two months, the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN) added two sites to their roster of shorebird-attractive locations that deserve special attention. One was in Brazil (Banco dos Cajuais, a huge coastal wetland site on the northeastern coast of Brazil.) and one was in Mexico. WHSRN sites are not dissimilar in some ways from Important Bird Areas (IBAs), and the new site in Mexico is close enough to the U.S. and shares shorebird species and subspecies with nearby California that it deserves similar consideration here.
Bahía de Todos Santos is the new WHSRN site in Mexico. It is a large marine bay in extreme northwestern Baja California State, close to the city of Ensenada. As the shorebird flies, this is only about 70 miles south of San Diego, California.
The WHSRN designation covers 5,169 acres of the most important shorebird habitat centered on the Estero Punta Banda, and includes intertidal mudflats, estuaries, sandy and rocky beaches, sand dunes, and salt marshes. Although the area is not formally considered a protected area, Estero Punta Banda receives protection as a Ramsar site:
The site holds over 4% of the Pacific population of the nominate subspecies of Snowy Plover, a form considered threatened in both Mexico and the U.S, and near threatened at a global level. In addition to its importance for Snowy Plovers, the Bahía de Todos Santos regularly holds important numbers of the roselaari subspecies of the Red Knot, the inornatus subspecies of the Willet, and the Marbled Godwit. Historically, numbers for all three taxa reached the threshold for WHSRN status. It is expected that regular monitoring by Terra Peninsular and CICESE, the Centro de Investigación Científica y de Educación Superior de Ensenada, will reveal that this is still the case. The area is also important as a breeding site for California browni Least Terns (with special protected status in Mexico) and the threatened Belding's Savannah Sparrow.
Bahía de Todos Santos was designated as the Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network's 99th site.
For additional information about the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network, see:
and for IBA information, including IBA sites in the U.S., visit the National Audubon Society's Important Bird Area program web site at:
PRELIMINARY USFWS SURVEY RELEASED
The much anticipated preliminary 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was released last month. It is the thirteenth in a series of surveys conducted every five years since 1955. The purpose of this survey is to collect and report information on the number of people who engaged in outdoor-associated wildlife activity, those activities in which they engaged, and the money they spent on their activities in 2016.
According to the preliminary report, participation in fishing and wildlife-watching went up, but the number of hunters dropped by about 2 million people in the last five years.
The report indicates these wildlife-watching activities increased a meaningful 20 percent from 2011 to 2016, from 71.8 million to 86 million participants during that time. The survey makes clear that the most significant increases in participation involve wildlife-watching - observing, feeding and photographing wildlife. Birdwatching is understood to account for the lion's share of that wildlife-watching, but most of the birding data have yet to be mined.
We do know that "around the home" bird observers totaled 38.7 million. "Away from home" bird observers - those who travel a mile or more away from home to watch birds - number 16.3 million. Expenditures by wildlife watchers also rose sharply - 28 percent - between 2011 and 2016, from $59.1 billion to $75.9 billion.
Comparing some bird-associated and wildlife-associated expenditures between 2011 and 2016 is instructive: optics shot up from c$919 million to $1.8 billion, cameras and photo equipment went up from c$2.8 billion to $3.6 billion, but bird food remained about steady at c$4.0 billion.
The final report has yet to be released, and we particularly hope to see another "Birding in the U.S., a Demographic and Economic Analysis," a report spinoff, similar to the publications that appeared in the last few cycles of reports.
You can access the recent preliminary National Survey here:
And, if you wish, compare it with the corresponding survey from 2011, here:
IN THE WEST: FIRES
This past summer was one of the worst wildfire seasons on record for the West, and the blazes seem to only be getting worse. At the season's peak, in early September, over 137 large wildfires were burning simultaneously in the West, covering an area of about eight million acres. The number and the drama approached biblical proportions. California, Utah, Montana, Oregon, Idaho, and Washington, along with British Columbia, seemed particularly hard hit. The raging conflagrations were exacerbated by record heat and drought in many parts of western North America.
We could conceivably be facing long-term trends that may significantly challenge the habitats, wildlife, and birds in the near future.
We may be looking at bigger, hotter, and increasingly frequent fires in the years ahead. The number, size, and intensity of wildfires is seriously altering habitat for fish and wildlife (e.g., huge fires can damage soils by burning organic matter, breaking down soil structure, and reducing important water retention). The result is increased stress on both the land and its inhabitants. In one way, focusing on "stress" may come close to anthropomorphizing on behalf of birds and other animals, but major fires certainly make it more difficult for wildlife to recover afterwards. Birds that are able to escape may have to move longer distances to find appropriate replacement habitat. But the ultimate stress is on the land itself.
Related to this reality is shifting ecology. Milder winters are allowing more pine bark beetle larvae to survive and longer, warmer summers are supporting more generations of these beetles per year. The damage or death of swaths of coniferous trees will inevitably follow. Not only does this impact the species that once lived in the now beetle-infested forests, it leaves behind a ready tinder-box, waiting to burst into flame with the next lightning strike. Needless to say, it can take many decades, or even hundreds of years, for these mature forests to return.
Another trend is sweeping habitat destruction. These fires in the West are destroying forests, including interspersed sagebrush habitats which, in the decades ahead, are expected to shrink due to increasingly warmer temperatures and more frequent fires. Damaged sagebrush systems alone may have very serious consequences for besieged sage-grouse and other sage-associated bird species, as well as mule deer, pronghorn and numerous smaller species. Fires impacting sagebrush could take sage habitats 120 or more years to recover.
There is also the added threat of reducing or eliminating escape. For mammals, for example, the speed of a spreading fire can trap even the fastest of them, including pronghorn, elk, and deer. For nestlings or young birds, the fires almost certainly spell death; they are unable - or ill-equipped - to fly away. Adult birds can flee from a fire, young birds can't. Fortunately, this year many of these Western fires occurred after the nesting season was over.
While wildlife has had a long-standing and creative relationship with fire-induced habitat change, and though fire is normally a natural feature of many of these western landscapes, we seem to be entering a period of rapid fire-driven alterations in the West that are producing changes that nature is simply hard-pressed to keep up with.
IN THE EAST: HURRICANES
Two hurricanes, Harvey and Irma, impacted the continental U.S. and had cataclysmic results.
Hurricane Harvey, which dumped an estimated 27 trillion gallons of water on Texas and Louisiana, may have been one of the most damaging natural disasters in U.S. history. The impact on humans was devastating. At least 70 people died. And the impact on wildlife habitat and birdlife was nearly as significant.
The winds and floods from Hurricane Harvey forced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to close at least 10 National Wildlife Refuges. The storm surge along the coasts - pushing saltwater inland and soaking tress and other plants more than they can tolerate - may have destroyed permanently many thousands of trees that provide safety and shelter for trans-Gulf migratory birds in the spring. For example, many live oaks were simply stripped of their leaves. Rookery islands along the coasts that are annually used by thousands of Brown Pelicans, herons, and egrets for nesting were particularly hard hit.
The storm also raised doubts about the security and future of the Attwater's Prairie-Chicken, the endangered subspecies of Greater Prairie-Chicken that occurs in the wild at only two locations west and south of Houston. Harvey may have seriously impacted the prairie-chicken population due to floods.
Before Harvey, staff at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge had been tracking 29 hens on the refuge, out of a total wild population of about 42 birds. After the hurricane, they could only confirm the survival of five of the hens. The good news, if there is any, is that close to 60 prairie-chickens, are being brought in as breeding stock, and are awaiting release.
The story with Hurricane Irma that hammered Florida on 10 and 11 September, is much the same. Following its destructive path through much of the Caribbean, Irma then slammed the Florida Keys. Homes and habitat were wrecked. The threat to lives and the damage to property was astounding, especially as Irma swept through southwest Florida. The salt-water surge's impact on freshwater-reliant vegetation is still being assessed. As Irma moved northward, it left devastation everywhere in its wake.
As a result, many of the sites on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail (GFBWT) were partially or totally closed to the public, and some sites, particularly those in South Florida, may be closed for several months. A status of such closings is available here:
TIP OF THE MONTH: AID FOR THE CARIBBEAN
Usually, our "Tip of the Month" contains some personal field-tip, something to do, to pack, or some seasonal activity that might be coming up. This month we have a different recommendation.
We present here a suggestion that might have you sleep better at night, specifically a suggestion to help our bird-oriented colleagues who are working in the Caribbean on birds and habitat, and who are trying to recover from the impacts of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Reviewing Irma's carnage is painful. Video from Cuba's northern Cays shows flamingos killed outright or slowing dying from the impacts of this intense storm. In Barbuda, almost every building was left uninhabitable, and the vegetation seems to be virtually scrubbed out of existence. Efforts to assess the damage to birdlife in Barbuda have been mixed, but fortunately at least eight endemic Barbuda Warblers were finally found after Irma. See details here:
Other reports, from St. Martin, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico, are equally unsettling. On the islands that took the brunt of the two hurricanes the damage is mind-boggling. The humanitarian crisis is sweeping, with losses of food, shelter, power, and medical care.
Trees were uprooted or left denuded of all fruit and leaves. On some islands, local Bananaquits and hummingbirds have been reported starving because flowers and leaves have been stripped from plants, and many flowering plants have been killed. Riverbanks were scoured, and fields were flooded with salt-water. At some inland locations, there are threats of landslides. The damage to mangroves, reefs, seagrass beds, and beaches mean that birds will have to deal with the serious loss of nesting habitat, shelter, and food.
Most of the devoted bird-educators, bird conservationists, and bird researchers who live and labor on these islands work or volunteer with non-profit organizations, or small government departments. Their resources are limited. All are extremely dedicated to their work and all are taking time to help birds, even as they themselves may have lost their homes or offices. They need help to get back on their feet in order to begin vital restoration efforts for the birds and habitats that suffered the fury of Irma and Maria.
If you wish to help the birds, habitats, and island communities in the region, BirdsCaribbean is supporting a Caribbean-wide network of partner organizations to help stabilize operations so that people can return to critical post-hurricane bird-conservation work. You can find more details, make a contribution, and/or leave comments here: