Birding Community E-bulletin: January

This Birding Community E-bulletin is being distributed to active and concerned birders, those dedicated to the joys of birding and the protection of birds and their habitats.

This issue is sponsored by the producers of superb quality birding binoculars and scopes, Carl Zeiss Sport Optics: www.zeiss.com/SPORTS

You can access an archive of past E-bulletins on the website of the National Wildlife Refuge Association (NWRA):


Note: this is our new archival location. See more details at the end of this month’s E-bulletin.

January Birding Community E-bulletin
















On the morning of 8 December, Dan Tankersley found a male Falcated Duck at Colusa National Wildlife Refuge in California about 60 miles northwest of Sacramento. The duck was first viewed from the auto route observation deck. This 4,500-acre refuge consists mainly of intensively managed wetland impoundments along with substantial riparian and grassland habitat. Located in the Sacramento Valley, the refuge plays host to large populations of wintering waterfowl, sometimes up to a quarter of a million birds.

The Falcated Duck was accompanied by many other species, including Northern Pintail, American Wigeon, and Gadwall. The Falcated Duck, a species pictured in most North American field guides, is actually a vagrant from Asia.

Falcated Ducks breed in northeast Asia from southern Siberia south to Mongolia, northeast China, and southern Japan and they winter from the southern portions of their breeding range to the northern parts of southeast. Asia. The species has a population estimated at about 35,000 birds, most of which winter in Japan, the Koreas, and southeast China.

It is a very rare to casual species in southwestern Alaska where there have been almost three dozen reports through the years. It is much rarer southward along the Pacific coast, including British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon. There are only a few credible records for California,  plus a few more records attributed to escaped birds at a time when the species was thought to be more common in private waterfowl collections.

During most of the Falcated Duck’s visit to Colusa NWR, it was viewed almost every day from the observation platform, often close to a couple of small islands directly in front of the platform; however, it has been difficult to observe when resting, or on the opposite side of one of the small islands.

Despite these viewing difficulties, the Falcated Duck entertained many visiting birders from California and from out of state through the end of the month.

To see some photos of the site and of this stunning duck, see these shots by Julio Mulero (18 December)


and by Mark Rauson (23 December)



If we were certain of its origin, a species that might have been our rarity of the month is a Hooded Crane located in southeastern Tennessee.

Marie Sutton and Phyllis Deal found an unusual-looking crane mixed in with Sandhill Cranes from the observation platform at the state’s Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge on 13 December. The crane was later photographed and identified as a Hooded Crane, a species that would normally be wintering in parts of eastern China, Korea, and southern Japan. In 2010 a Hooded Crane was also seen in Idaho in late April-early May, 2010, and in Nebraska in late March, 2011. It is unclear whether any of these observations represent truly wild birds, but well over 1,700 birder-visitations from at least 35 states have been tabulated at the Tennessee site through the end of the December. Local birders are obviously hoping it says until the Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival (14-15 January):


See a story about the crane from Reuters (27 December) here:


Readers may remember that we covered the issue of crane hunting and crane avitourism in Tennessee in February (ninth story down this page):



If you were unable to see the Falcated Duck in California or the Hooded Cranein Tennessee in December, don’t be too envious because there may be a stunning and exciting rarity in store for you closer to home this season.

As many readers may know, Snowy Owls are circumpolar Arctic breeders that often lead nomadic lives, sometimes travelling vast distances in winter. Some years they move considerably farther south of their more usual winter range in their search for productive feeding areas. The winter of 2011/2012 is shaping up to be just such a season, so there could be a Snowy Owl near you already, or possibly sometime before the end of the winter, at least if you live in the southern Canada or the northern tier of the United States.

To familiarize yourself with this winter’s possible Snowy Owl viewing opportunities, be sure to see this fine summary made available in late November on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird pages:


To see a stunning visual summary of the species and its behavior as it moves south, be sure watch Gerrit Vyn’s video on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website at:


Snowy Owls are often attracted to locations somewhat resembling their Arctic tundra environment. In the Boston area, for example (and often in other places in the East) these frequently happen to be airports! In an example of local Snowy Owl airport activity, see this summary of Mass Audubon staffer, Norman Smith’s work at Boston’s Logan International Airport:



Congress is mulling over the next Farm Bill, a bill that’s going to be important. Once a tedious and pedestrian delivery system for gross subsidies to farms – big and small – the Farm Bill has evolved to incorporate crucial conservation measures that will benefit soil and wildlife conservation.

As always, the question will be:  How much will go to the conservation corners of the Farm Bill to protect natural resources across the agricultural landscape?

Some of the most important opportunities and concerns for bird conservationists are the following:

  1. Requiring producers who participate in federally subsidized risk management protection (i.e. crop insurance) to adhere to regulations that protect wetlands, grasslands, and natural resources. This is not excessive government regulation. Instead, it is a reasonable tradeoff between taxpayer support for agriculture and society’s overall need to save natural resources.
  2. Re-coupling crop insurance and disaster assistance to conservation compliance which will save taxpayer dollars by reducing future federal outlays on lands that are generally considered riskier to farm.
  3. Providing basic retention of The Wetland Conservation Compliance (i.e., Swampbuster).
  4. Strengthening a nationwide Sodsaver provision to protect native prairie by reducing incentives for conversion to cropland..
  5. Including the essential Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) at the level of at least 32 million acres.
  6. Improving the CRP to be made more attractive to producers.
  7. Authorization of the Wetland Reserve Program.

Enlightened Farm Bill opportunities can provide bird and wildlife habitat for hundreds of species (including those that are Threatened or Endangered), reduce soil erosion, enhance water quality, and even strengthen flood control.

Recommendations such as these have been proposed by numerous conservation partners and will continue to be discussed until the Farm Bill is re-written and passed.


Related to these Farm Bill developments, is another study of interest. Last summer, a team of four USDA researchers investigated the degree to which Farm Bill provisions might encourage the transformation of native grasslands to croplands in the Northern Great Plains.

This research group recently rendered their 85-page report down to a mere 8-page synopsis, something significantly easier to read. Basically, the researchers discuss why crop insurance, marketing loan benefits, and disaster assistance can encourage farmers to cultivate more land than they otherwise might, and something which is at least partly at the expense of native grassland currently used as rangeland.

Obviously, these native grasslands are extremely important as breeding habitat for migratory birds, ranging from waterfowl to grassland sparrows.

In emphasizing the depth of the problem, the report states, “The Northern Plains accounted for 57 percent of U.S. gross conversions of rangeland to cropland in 1997-2007, even though the region encompasses only18 percent of the Nation’s rangeland.”

You can access this short 8-page summary here:



While we have covered the issue of sage-grouse conservation many times in the E-bulletin, the public is now being asked to weigh in as federal agencies address the issue of protecting the Greater Sage-Grouse in 10 Western states. The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service announced on 8 December that they plan to hold meetings throughout the West in January and February on the issues concerning sage-grouse.

This is in the context of a serious situation for the species. Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the species deserves protection as an Endangered species, but such protection can’t be extended because other species higher on the list are in greater need of help. Public comments are due by the close of business, 7 February.

This is the official government announcement:


This is a summary of the issues at stake from the American Bird Conservancy and from WildEarth Guardians:



On the evening of 12 December, thousands of migrating Eared Grebes were killed or injured at night when they crash-landed on a Wal-Mart parking lot, football fields, roads and highways, and other snow-covered areas at Cedar City in southern Utah. These sites were apparently mistaken for bodies of water. The downed flocks of grebes were also reported at locations as far as 30 miles south of Cedar City.

“Before there were [artificial lights], the sky was always paler than the ground,” said Kevin McGowan at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, commenting on possible causes. “When all of a sudden there’s light all over the place, they don’t know which way is up anymore.” Moreover, it is not uncommon for birds to crash en masse, especially if they confuse the ground for water.

An estimated 4,000 were grounded, with volunteers rescuing most of them, releasing them into local waterways. Over 1,500 were estimated to have died.

This was a high-profile crash, reported across the U.S. and abroad. For coverage, see this piece from USA TODAY:


or this one from AccuWeather:



On the afternoon of 6 December, Jethro Runco and Loni Silver, two San Clemente Loggerhead Shrike researchers from the Institute for Wildlife Studies, observed and photographed a remarkable Red-flanked Bluetail on San Clemente Island off the California coast. The bird was seen again by these two observers, along with Justyn Stahl and Shannon Ehlers, later in the afternoon.

This is an Old World species – breeding from Finland to the Russian Far east – that has been seen almost two dozen times in Alaska (mostly in the Aleutians) and once in California (i.e., 1989, Southeast Farallon Island).

The exciting San Clemente Island story (with some photos) is recounted here, from eBird:


And another photo by Jethro Runco can be found here:


There has been some controversy over this sighting, not its identity, but the fact that it was reported to birders when the location is off-limits.

San Clemente Island, the southernmost of the Channel Islands of California, is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Navy. Fully 21-miles long, the island is the Navy’s only remaining ship-to-shore live firing range that contains a U.S. Navy rocket-test facility, is used as an auxiliary naval airfield, and is even used as a simulated “embassy” for specialized commando training.

It is also the home of a unique subspecies of Loggerhead Shrike, and the island  supports fragile flowers and shrubs found nowhere else in the world.

Restrictions, therefore, seem reasonable. However, some birders asked: Can anything be done about the place being off-limits? Other birders emphasized the island’s fragile ecology and the importance of simply knowing about the occurrence of the Red-flanked Bluetail, even though they were prevented from visiting the island.

All these opinions have validity. While this may seem to be a particularly extreme case, if not one that is unresolvable, perhaps there are still lessons to be considered. Too often, birders seem willing to simply acquiesce to the assertion that a location is off-limits, unreachable, and closed to birding visitors. Much of the time, but certainly not always, something can be done to address the issue. In other words, access matters!


Last month, it was announced that New Jersey’s Delaware Bayshore meets the criteria for status as a Globally Significant Important Bird Area (IBA). Covering about 50 miles of coastline, from Cumberland County to Cape May County, the Delaware Bayshore IBA includes about 50,000 acres, much of it protected conservation land, including 13 state Wildlife Management Areas and the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge.

To acquire the Globally Significant label, the New Jersey Audubon Society and the National Audubon submitted years of annual shorebird and waterfowl survey data to a panel of nationally and internationally recognized experts. There are currently only 449 Globally Significant IBAs in the U.S.

The panel concluded that four species were present in numbers that either meet or exceed the quota required to trigger the Globally Significant designation. Delaware Bay is a crucial stopover site for migrating Red Knots and Ruddy Turnstones, and a critical winter habitat for large concentrations of Snow Geese and American Black Ducks. The data was collected in annual surveys by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP).

Of the four species named in the announcement, the plight of the Red Knot and Ruddy Turnstone is the best known. While recent surveys show significant numbers of birds refueling along the Bayshore during spring migration (12,000 to 16,000 Red Knots and 17,000 to 37,000 Ruddy Turnstones), they are significantly lower than counts of 95,000 Red Knots and 80,000 Turnstones recorded in earlier aerial surveys. A precipitous decline in these populations began in the mid-1980s, at the same time that horseshoe crab harvesting for use as bait rose dramatically.. Horseshoe crab eggs are essential food that makes it possible for these long-distance shorebird migrants to make it to their summer arctic nesting grounds to breed.

Curiously, New Jersey’s IBA program is actually an IBBA program (i.e., Important Bird and Birding Area) program. The program identifies sites that are essential for sustaining native bird populations (Important Bird Areas) and areas that are exceptional for birdwatching (Important Birding Areas). For more information on the New Jersey IBA Program, please visit:


For additional information about IBA programs worldwide, including those across the U.S., check the National Audubon Society’s Important Bird Area program web site at:



With the start of a New Year, it might be instructive to share a warning and some advice. It’s time to watch out for, and isolate, any SLOB among us.

Now, we are absolutely convinced that the overwhelming majority of birders are generous, ethical, sharing, and trustworthy individuals who exhibit respect for the rights of other people , property, and especially birds. But there are always a few of those rare individuals among us who could be identified – in the words of former Executive Director of the American Birding Association, Jim Tucker, in 1981 – as a SLOB. A SLOB is a Selfish, Lazy, Obnoxious, Birder.

A SLOB only rarely gives more than a passing notice to the needs of others in a birding group, never seems able to help anyone else find a bird, is convinced that “Keep Out” signs are not to be taken seriously, and is, through other clueless or irresponsible behaviors, simply an embarrassment to other birders.

In some cases, newer birders beginning in the field may either 1) unknowingly pick up bad habits from a SLOB birder, or 2) simply be so repulsed by the SLOB’s behavior that birding is dropped entirely as a desirable pastime. In either case, these are the folks who deserve helpful advice and kindly direction.

Long-standing SLOB behavior should simply not be tolerated in the birding community.


We don’t usually report on far-off bird stories, concentrating instead on North American, or sometimes inter-American bird issues. Nonetheless, this story was too good to pass up.

Some of New Zealand’s most endangered wildlife, including the flightless endemic Kiwi, can be viewed at Pukaha Mount Bruce in northern Wairararapa, a pioneer captive breeding program. The center is set against the backdrop of the 942-hectare Pukaha Mount Bruce forest, an area into which native wildlife is being returned.

A small number of North Island Kiwis carry a recessive “white” gene which both the male and female must have in order to produce a white chick. This is not characteristic of most albinos by the way.

One such white chick, a female the staff named Manukura (meaning “of chiefly status”), was hatched in May. Remarkably, two adult birds with the rare white gene must have paired up in the penned forest to produce a second white chick, since a second surprise white Kiwi chick was hatched on 18 December.

It is assumed that this new chick, named Mauriora (meaning “sustained life”), has the same parents as Manukura. At least the father is known. The parents were apparently among the 30 Kiwis transferred from Hauturu/Little Barrier Island in 2010. There is even another egg from the same nest as Mauriora, so the chances are assumed to be one in four that this third chick will be white.

For a photo and local story on the pre-Christmas hatching of Mauriroa, see here:


And to see a terribly cute video, try this:



Recording observations in the field has always been an indispensable scientific skill, yet field researchers are often reluctant to share their personal records or observations with the public. In FIELD NOTES ON SCIENCE & NATURE edited by Michael R. Canfield (2011, Harvard University Press), for the first time, readers are treated to a marvelously varied collection of note-taking techniques, accompanied by reproductions of actual pages from the field notebooks of a cadre of distinguished naturalists and scientists. Among the many naturalists and scientists whose field notebooks are featured in this informative and unique book are George Schaller, Bernd Heinrich, Kenn Kaufman, Karen Kramer, Jenny Keller, and Jonathan Kingdon. Taken together, this collection of outstanding essays provides a marvelous template for anyone who has ever attempted to maintain a field notebook, or who has ever questioned the wisdom of doing so. This new title is highly recommended.


Last month’s National Geographic quiz question was about Short-tailed Albatrosses: What is the name of the island in the Pacific where the overwhelming majority of these albatrosses nest?

The correct answer was: Torishima Island

The prize for our five winners – chosen randomly among all correct answers – was a copy of the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC BACKYARD GUIDE TO THE BIRDS OF NORTH AMERICA by Jonathan Alderfer and Paul Hess (2011). A full description of this backyard book can be found here:


Last month’s five winners were: Steve Carr (Holladay, Utah), Kamal Islam (Muncie, Indiana), John F. Kearney (Antigonish, Nova Scotia), Jay M. Sheppard (Laurel, Maryland), and Marcy Stutzman (Laurel, Maryland).


We have a few changes and new developments for the Birding Community E-bulletin starting in 2012.

First, we have a new supporting sponsor, as indicated on the top of this E-bulletin. Carl Zeiss Sport Optics, makers of superb optics is now on board as a supporting sponsor for 2012. We are delighted that they have chosen to support the E-bulletin, and we are equally thrilled to associate with such a fine product and company.

Next, we have moved the E-bulletin archives from one page on the National Wildlife Refuge Association website to another. You can now find our past issues here:


You can still find all the articles in the previous issues here , but old links may fail to get you to these articles directly.

Our colleagues at NWRA have been nothing but gracious and supportive in their efforts to help sustain the E-bulletin over the years. They have been absolutely essential in keeping the E-bulletin accessible to a growing birding-conscious and bird-conservation-conscious public. They deserve our wholehearted thanks.

Finally, our story on visiting Snowy Owls marks the start of an irregular feature we hope to run in the E-bulletin. On occasion, Gerrit Vyn from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology will provide a video link for one of our stories on a special species, an event, or a bird-conservation development. We look forward to experimenting with this new possibility for the E-bulletin and look forward to hearing from you about it.

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Wayne R. Petersen, Director

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Mass Audubon




Paul J. Baicich



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