The Birding Community E-Bulletin March

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.

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



Once again, this month there was no extraordinary, stand-out, stay-in-place, mega-rarity to attract continent-wide attention; however, there were some very interesting birds, including one species that we inadvertently made reference to in February.

Last month, in both our “Access Matters” and “Tip of the Month” features we drew attention to the gull-watching opportunities afforded by the season:




We specifically mentioned Slaty-backed Gull last month. In fact, we also highlighted the species in January, 2008, and it deserves revisiting.

This species is found in coastal northeast Asia, and increasingly in western Alaska, especially in spring and summer. It has been found in relatively impressive numbers and in extraordinary locations across the lower-48 states and in southern Canada over the past few years. Meanwhile in Japan, Slaty-backed Gulls have been expanding, and the birds are even nesting on urban rooftops.

In California, there have been a few Slaty-backed Gulls recorded this winter. For example, between 7 January and 8 February there at least two of these birds at various locations in Tiburon, in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Surprisingly, California’s first two accepted records of Slaty-backed Gull only go back to 1995 and 2001, but since 2005 there have been at least 50 records with occurrences almost every year. Just as remarkably, almost half of these have been wintering birds at Half-Moon Bay.

But there have also been some interior-continental reports of this species in winter, and last month was no exception.

For example, during the Laredo Birding Festival last month, an adult Slaty-backed Gull was found at Lake Casa Blanca International State Park. This was on 6 February, and the bird was reported at different locations around the area through the end of the month. The gull, often frequenting the lake in the early mornings and mid-afternoons, delighted many traveling birders.

Another interior report of an adult Slaty-backed Gull began on 14 February at the Lake County Fairgrounds in Libertyville, Illinois, northwest of Chicago. This bird was seen by thrilled observers through 23 February. Here are some photos of this bird taken by Nolan Lameka:


Although coastal and western locations are likely places for Slaty-backed Gulls (e.g., Oregon and Washington each have at least a dozen records), there is no telling where Slaty-backed Gulls might next appear. This species has already appeared in such far-flung places as Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Massachusetts, and Quebec.

Who knows? A Slaty-backed Gull could soon be coming to a neighborhood near you!


If you have a hankering for understanding, or finding out more about some of the rarities that we profile on a monthly basis, Rare Birds of North America (Princeton, 2014) is the book for you. This is a unique and beautifully illustrated guide to most of the vagrant birds that have occurred across the continental United States and Canada. The authors – Steve N.G. Howell, Ian Lewington, and Will Russell – cover 262 mouth-watering species originating in three different regions – the Old World (Europe and NE Asia), the New World tropics (mostly Mexico and the Caribbean), and the ocean waters which touch North American shores.

The book contains 275 sumptuous plates (by Lewington) depicting every species profiled in the book, including illustrations of some more common look-alike species to help clarify identification problems.

The authors’ standard for inclusion in this book of vagrants is the confirmed occurrence of five or fewer individuals of any species found annually in North America. One can quibble over what to include or not include, but the authors have done an amazing job in choosing what species to profile.

Most informative is the dense – but essential – introductory 41 pages which attempt to explain patterns of species’ occurrence by region and season, a synthesis of the theories that account for occurrences of these rarities, and finally putting all of this information in an appropriate context. As a primer for understanding vagrancy and migration, the introduction is remarkable. Furthermore, the seven explanations for North American vagrancy are thoughtfully presented: drift, misorientation, overshooting, dispersal, association, disorientation, and false vagrancy.

Each of the 262 species accounts is terse, yet thorough. The “comments” section for each species account is particularly interesting, summarizing solid knowledge and informed speculation on the occurrence of each species in question. Identification details, although essential, can be found in other books, but it’s good to have it all in one place.

Rare Birds of North America should enrich the field experience of those interested in finding and observing rare birds, and it should serve as an encouragement to all.


In January of last year, we wrote about ongoing conservation concerns involving Lesser Prairie-Chickens:


Last fall, a creative “Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-wide Conservation Plan,” was developed by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) and state wildlife agencies in five states: Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. You can view the plan here:


Now, five oil and gas companies are voluntarily enrolling nearly 1.5 million acres of land under a creative plan to conserve the Lesser Prairie-Chicken and its habitat. These constitute the first enrollments under the plan. Details can be found here, summarized by the Wildlife Management Institute:



Last year, the media focused on the drought in Texas; this year it’s California. Neither is pretty; neither is over. While the Texas drought has loosened its awful grip, the California situation continues to be grim.

California finally got some rain across much of the state and some snow at high altitudes at the end of February, but not enough to rescue the state from its plight.

In its third year of drought, California has has engaged in a set of water-need consequences – agriculture, rangeland, wildlife-sector, and urban use – that combine to accentuate the competition for what little water there is available. Last year was the driest in the state since rainfall measurement began in 1849. With seven inches of rain in 2013 – well below the 22-inch average – wells are drying up and many reservoirs are just 30 percent full. The Sierra snowpack – providing the Golden State with about a third of its water – was almost 90 percent below average at the end of January. It crept to about 75 percent below average in February, but that’s little comfort.

The current drought begins to approach difficulties faced in the mid-1970s, but today’s water demands are far greater. Now, with over 38 million people in the state, the water needs are even more enormous.

While the media concentrates on the rural vs. urban tug-of-war over water, the call for voluntary water-reduction use, and the fact that some cities have made such actions mandatory, are reflective of poor past planning and poor past conservation.

The Central Valley has huge agricultural needs. On less than one percent of the total farmland in the U.S., the Valley produces eight percent of the nation’s agricultural output by value. Its productivity depends on irrigation from both surface water diversions and groundwater pumping. Amazingly, about a sixth of the irrigated land in the U.S. is in the Central Valley.

While farmers insist on watering their crops, and suburban folks want regular water access with few restrictions, disadvantaged communities are at a loss in parts of the state where low-income minorities have sub-standard drinking water. Besides, as ranchers and farmers reduce employment, Latinos, as a group, particularly suffer.

For us, birds are also big losers. Here are some facts to consider:

  • The network of NWRs and state wildlife areas in California has been particularly hard hit by the drought.
  • Fish-eating birds of all sizes are potentially threatened. Adult fish are at risk as low water levels in many rivers may prevent them from migrating and spawning. This eventually impacts the supply of fish fry as food for birds.
  • A reduction in wetlands forces concentration of waterbirds into more confined spaces where wetlands remain. Such overcrowding can lead to an outbreak of diseases, such as avian cholera.
  • Nearly seven million waterfowl and 300,000 shorebirds annually visit the Sacramento Valley, and a majority of the food they eat comes from the valley’s rice fields, fields that are currently offering less in the way of habitat.
  • A coming dry spring season can severely impact bird breeding, involving many species across the state.
  • Rice farms are sometimes criticized for using a lot of water. But much of that water is released back into rivers and streams after the growing season. And it is also the temporary layer of a rich wet “soup” that makes these fields such a seasonal bonanza for waterbirds of all types. Indeed, when rice-field burning was replaced with flooding in the early 1990s, the change had a major positive effect on birds, as well as an improvement in air quality. 

Normally, at the end of January, many rice farms would have already drained their fields, allowing the water to decompose last year’s harvest straw in December and January. But this winter, at least 10,000 acres of temporary rice-wetlands are being sustained through March, the result of an experimental cooperative project between rice farmers and The Nature Conservancy. Farmers are being paid about $45 per acre to keep some of these temporary wetlands viable for birds.

There has already been a significant redistribution of populations of waterfowl, cranes, shorebirds, or other birds in the Central Valley. Rice fields on the west side of the valley are now largely dry. Water closer to the east side, and nearer the Sierras, can host more birds. Farther south, in the northern San Joaquin Valley, a recent survey has verified that waterbird numbers have dropped. Where there were 1.2 million wintering waterfowl in 2012, there were fewer than half a million counted this January.

There are two months of possible rain remaining, and a catch-up is still possible. But a “March miracle” will not resolve a long-term problem, nor will emergency relief measures, which are by definition short-term. Better long-term planning has yet to be developed, balancing the needs of vital agricultural requirements, demanding cities, and wildlife concerns. Better ways to increase storage capacity, to recycle available water, and to conserve use in metropolitan areas will all have to be pursued. In the words of Brian Stranko, the California water resources director for The Nature Conservancy, “We should really use this unfortunate event as an opportunity to think about how to prepare for the next drought and the one after that. We didn’t do that in the last drought, we need to do it now.”

You can read more on birds and the drought here, from the Sacramento Bee:



Also from California, in the September Birding Community E-bulletin we wrote about the problems created when certain large-scale solar-power facilities posed a risk to birds when they resembled water-surfaces:


In another case from southern California last month, a large-scale solar-power facility operating differently ended up posing different concerns. Instead of large solar photovoltaic modules, thousands of mirrors at this facility reflect sunlight onto boilers on central power-towers to create steam for generating energy. Reportedly, temperatures at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station can exceed 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

The problem now is that some birds flying over the station may be getting roasted! There could also be additional unanticipated bird problems with the towers, some as tall as 40-story buildings.

The company discovered dozens of dead birds while workers were testing operations before the plant started functioning in December. Some of the dead birds appeared to have singed or burned feathers, according to federal biologists and in documents filed with the state Energy Commission. The dead birds included a Peregrine Falcon, two additional raptors, a grebe, four nighthawks, and a variety of warblers and sparrows.

While the station remains in service, state and federal authorities will oversee a two-year study of the facility’s effects on birds.

This is yet another sober reminder that “green power” needs to be pursued in a responsible way, and that transitioning from fossil fuels to sustainable energy must involve better information on the variables.

You can find more information on this recent case from the Wall Street Journal, here:



The China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) has asked the Government of Jamaica to provide a site for a potentially huge development to include a new transshipment port, industrial parks, a major highway, and new housing, power stations, and hotels. A current plan centers on the Portland Bight Protected Area (PBPA) on Jamaica’s south coast, and it threatens this important zone where many birds have historically been protected.

The PBPA is the largest Protected Area in Jamaica, and it includes important mangroves, coastal areas, islets, scrub, and some of the best remaining dry forest in the Caribbean. The PBPA covers 1,876 square kilometers (724 square miles) with zones of outstanding importance for resident and migratory birds. These include waterfowl (especially the globally threatened West Indian Whistling-Duck), shorebirds, seabirds, landbirds, and 17 out of 33 of Jamaica’s endemic and range-restricted bird species. Jamaican Lizard Cuckoo, Jamaican Oriole, Jamaican Owl, Jamaican Tody, Sad Flycatcher, Jamaican Spindalis, and Jamaican Mango are among the 17 endemics in the area. Of course, numerous Neotropical migrants use the area as a stopover or wintering site.

The proposed development site includes two Important Bird Areas (IBAs), the Portland Ridge and Bight and the Hellshire Hills (including Goat Island). They include areas designated for protection under four different Jamaican laws (i.e., NRCA Act, Forest Act, Fishing Industry Act and the Wildlife Protection Act) and comprise one of the most protected areas in Jamaica.

Nonetheless, the Jamaican government appears to be moving forward with plans for the development.

The Jamaica Environment Trust has been leading the effort to challenge the development project. Their Trust’s website has a wealth of information on the PBPA, photos, videos, press links, a briefing paper, and action items. 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:



The historic Hog Island Audubon Camp in Maine is offering four residential ornithology programs this June and three in September, with instructors like Pete Dunne, Wayne Petersen, Scott Weidensaul, and Steve Kress on hand to lead field trips and present programs throughout the 5½-day experience.

Hog Island is a lovely 330-acre spruce-covered island in the mid-coast area of Maine. This year will be the fifth since National Audubon resumed management of the famous camp. It had been run for a time – about eight years – by Maine Audubon, but it originally goes back to 1936.

The island supports nesting Northern Parulas and Blackburnian Warblers, and it has proximity to the restored Atlantic Puffin and tern colony (which hosts Common, Roseate, and Arctic Terns) on Eastern Egg Rock. That treeless island is specifically designated as the “Allan D. Cruickshank Wildlife Sanctuary” in honor of the noted birding promoter and bird photographer.

Scholarships are also available for Hog Island this year. Oh, yes, there’s also great food too!

For more details, see here:



Last month, we reported on Whooping Cranes from the experimental flock shot in Kentucky:


Toward the beginning of last month, two more Whooping Cranes were found shot, this time in Louisiana. These were from a different flock, the cranes having been released in the state in an attempt to recreate a once resident population of Whooping Cranes found in southern Louisiana.

Of the 50 whoopers that have been released in Louisiana in a cooperative effort by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, USFWS, USGS, and the Louisiana Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, 31 are still alive.

The two recently shot birds were found near Roanoke, in Jefferson Davis Parish. The pair and the state’s oldest couple, had formed a mating bond in 2013 and, while probably too young to produce eggs, were already building practice nests. They were expected to produce a chick within a year or two.

While the female was killed outright, the male had significant damage to one wing. Authorities thought the bird might live, even if unable to fly, but it ultimately had to be euthanized in late February.

A $15,000 reward has been offered for tips that lead to a conviction in the case.

More details from last month can be found here:





On 24 February, the City Commission (the equivalent of a city council) of McAllen, Texas, adopted an ordinance to protect parrots residing in McAllen. Commissioner John Ingram had been convinced by resident, outdoor photographer, and nature enthusiast Charles Alexander and others to take on the cause.

McAllen is one of the places in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas where parrots (psittacids) have taken up residence, although nobody is quite sure of the origins of the region’s Green Parakeets and Red-crowned Parrots. Still, they are a delight, and it is now an offense to harm in any way these free-flying parrots in McAllen.

Brownsville also has an ordinance, but for the local Red-crowned Parrots only.


Last month, when we wrote about having access to “dams, power plant outflows, landfills, and piers,” we were describing the pursuit of wintering gulls. This month, we have a variation on that theme: dealing with access limitation at a power plant, in this case involving eagle-watching.

The DTE Energy power plant in Monroe, Michigan, dumps a lot of warm water into Lake Erie. Not surprisingly, in winter Bald Eagles are drawn to the plant’s warm-water discharge, which provides the eagles an easy access to fish, as well as to a neighboring wooded area where the birds can roost.

DTE Energy is happy to host the eagles, but it’s more difficult for the company to host human visitors who want to watch and photograph the eagles. For about four years, however, the plant has hosted a one-day opportunity to view the Bald Eagles. Because of location, a narrow road and dike to the viewing site, security, and the need to have plant staff accompany the visitors, opportunities can be severely limited.

There are hundreds of people who want to partake of the experience, but far too many for the plant to accommodate.

In partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the International Wildlife Refuge Alliance (the Friends Group for the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge almost next door), DTE Energy allows for a lottery to welcome 30 visitors in the morning and 30 visitors in the afternoon to view the eagles. The Alliance actually runs the lottery.

This year, there were almost 200 eagles at the plant, and the visitors included birders, wildlife photographers, and smitten eagle-fans.

The practice of eagle-watching at power plants and dams isn’t unique to this DTE Energy facility. It occurs at a number of facilities in Nebraska, South Dakota, Connecticut, Wisconsin, and far beyond. But the visitation limitations at the Monroe plant and elsewhere present a particular challenge. The partners in Monroe have dealt with it wisely and fairly. A lottery system cannot satisfy everyone, but it is fair, and it is far better than the option of closing access altogether.

It’s an access option that others should consider in negotiating with the managers of like facilities.

For more details on this particular situation, see the Associated Press story here:



This month will mark the 80th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, popularly called the “Duck Stamp.” Eighty years ago, 16 March 1934, Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the bill into law.

Today, we can review the use of total stamp funds, currently close to $900 million, and we can visit the wetland, riparian, and grassland habitats at 252 NWRs and the additional 3.0 million acres of individual small wetlands in the National Wildlife Refuge System that have been secured through the Stamp. Waterfowl, other birds and wildlife, and the American public have all benefited from these investments.

For more information on the history and origins of the Stamp, see here:



Last year, the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) and the Cooper Ornithological Society (COS) combined resources to create a joint Central Ornithological Publications Office (COPO). This is one of the ways that these two prominent ornithological organizations are working closely together.

COPO brought on new staff for their electronic pursuits. And, at the same time, they welcomed a team of editors and associate editors to refocus the content of their journals in new ways. Responsiveness, efficiency, and prompt access to research are all in play here.

In January on their cooperative website, they started publishing weekly, The Auk: Ornithological Advances and The Condor: Ornithological Applications. The first is covering basic science, and the second is devoted to applied science. Such a division makes good sense to the organizations and researchers. Here is their new joint website:


Members can read all the content for their society’s journal, and non-members can access article abstracts and other material from both organizations. Open access opportunities are expanding. For some time, all articles through 2000 (The Condor) and 2001 (The Auk) have been available to the general public via SORA (Searchable Ornithological Research Archive):



At the end of January, a letter was sent to Department of the Interior Secretary, Sally Jewell, from over 200 organizations requesting that each agency within the DOI develop a formal policy for the removal of feral cat colonies on their lands. The effort was led by the American Bird Conservancy and their Cats Indoors! campaign.

Cat colonies are increasingly a problem on many federal lands managed by the Department of the Interior, so the signatories asked that DOI recognize the problem and address it in light of the billions of birds and small mammals killed in the U.S. by cats each year and in light of human health concerns, including rabies and toxoplasmosis.

As part of the letter, the signatories asserted that the TNR (Trap-Neuter-Release) efforts used in many locations “fail to reduce cat populations and cannot be relied upon as a management tool to remove cat colonies or protect people and wildlife.”

You can read the entire letter to Secretary Jewell here:


The Wildlife Society and Society for Conservation Biology have also sent a recent letter to Secretary Jewell for action on this important conservation issue.

Finally, do you know of public lands with large numbers of free-roaming cats or cat colonies? Whether they pertain to federal, state, county, or municipal lands, please contact Grant Sizemore at gsizemore@abcbirds.org with details.


Every five years the USFWS releases its much-respected “National Survey on Hunting, Fishing, and Wildlife-associated Recreation.” The most recent study, from 20011, is packed with fascinating data.

Ever since the 2001 report, an addendum to the main report has appeared, usually two years later, which is titled, “Birding in the United States: A Demographic and Economic Analysis.”

The most recent version of that birding report was released last month.

We usually wouldn’t recommend a data-packed document as our “tip of the month,” but it’s only a little more than a dozen pages, and all active birders and those interested in birding business would do well to spend some time perusing its pages this month.

After all, it’s about us.

This report indicates that we number 18 million “away-from-home birders” and 41 million “around-the-home birders,” and that we are roughly, middle-aged, well-educated, fairly well-off, and gender-balanced. The report also indicates that we are 93 percent white. But there is a lot more in the report.

You can download the informative USFWS document here:



Last September, we described the partnership between the American Bird Conservancy, Tucson Audubon Society, and Victor Emanuel Nature Tours to save the Paton’s Birder Haven, the treasured property in Patagonia, Arizona, that for more than 35 years had been built by the late Wally and Marion Paton into a premier hummingbird-watching site:


And we relayed in November the announcement that the needed $300,000 had been raised:


At the end of February, the deal was closed. ABC purchased the property and turned it over to the Tucson Audubon Society for long-term management as a public-access hummingbird sanctuary. See details here:


Fortunately, Tucson Audubon also announced that it has successfully raised the funds to allow for at least the initial maintenance and associated management. Tucson Audubon will continue to collect donations for the property, to improve, among other things, native planting, seating, and feeding stations.

The whole process has been a great example of creativity, cooperation, conservation, and success.

– – – – – – – – –
You can access all the past E-bulletins on the National Wildlife Refuge Association (NWRA) website: http://refugeassociation.org/news/birding-bulletin/

If you wish to distribute or reproduce all or parts of any of the monthly Birding Community E-bulletins, we simply request that you mention the source of any material used. (Include a URL for the E-bulletin archives, if possible.)

If you have any friends or co-workers who want to get onto the monthly E-bulletin mailing list, have them contact either:

Wayne R. Petersen, Director
Massachusetts Important Bird Areas (IBA) Program
Mass Audubon
Paul J. Baicich
Great Birding Projects

We never lend or sell our E-bulletin recipient list.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.refugeassociation.org/2014/03/the-birding-community-e-bulletin-march/

1 comment

  1. RCS Optics says:

    We look with anticipation upon the spring migratory periods and the opportunities to check off more birds from our life lists. An upcoming birding festival at the Lake Andes National Wildlife Refuge is scheduled for May 2-4 near Pickstown, SD. See you there!

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