The Birding Community E-Bulletin July 2015

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 (the Refuge Association).



In last month’s issue, we mentioned a Tufted Flycatcher in Arizona, a bird first observed on 22 May discovered foraging, calling, and even showing nesting behavior about two miles from the famous Ramsey Canyon Preserve in the southeastern part of the state.

Since then,the flycatcher became a lot more interesting when both a male and female Tufted Flycatcher were seen together and a nest was found.

This is an exceptional discovery since this species, commonly found only in the highlands and foothills of Mexico (from central Senora and south Tamaulipas) to Central America, and has only been seen in the U.S. about a half dozen times previously.

Many birders who were willing to take a fairly rigorous hike of four miles round-trip were rewarded by getting views of the birds. It appeared unlikely, however, that the nest and its eggs were viable, although one or the other adult bird was observed in the area for much of June.

You can access a short report on this remarkable rarity and many photos (including the nest) here:



The plight of the Tricolored Blackbird, one of California’s most emblematic passerines, was previously covered in the E-bulletin last July :  http://refugeassociation.org/?p=9787/#tricolored

and again in September: http://refugeassociation.org/?p=10225/#tricolored

Tricolored Blackbirds were given emergency protection in December under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA), and the species has also been petitioned for Federal ESA listing. It is estimated that Tricolored Blackbirds have declined by more than 90% over the last 80 years, and have specifically exhibited a 63% loss between 2008 and 2014.

The Central Valley Bird Club has recently published a special expanded issue of the Central Valley Bird Club Bulletin on the Tricolored Blackbird. This special issue includes nine articles by active researchers and conservationists.

The issue specifically provides up-to-date information on the status of the Tricolored Blackbird, previous and new techniques for estimating the size of the population, and ecology of California’s Central Valley and Sierra foothill populations. Most importantly, the journal includes key conservation recommendations regarding Tricolored Blackbird recovery needs and management guidelines for both the species’ nesting and foraging habitats.

With a lack of insects and the destruction of areas hosting breeding colonies as the two most important causes for the recent population decline, this special issue is required reading for anyone interested or involved in Tricolored Blackbird conservation. The potential on-the ground cooperative roles for cattle ranches, dairy farms, rice lands, National Wildlife Refuges, State Wildlife Areas, and private duck clubs are all covered in this publication.

To get a copy of the special issue ($15), look for the option that indicates “Tricolored Blackbird Issue” here:


You also can find other information and reports on the species at the UC Davis Tricolored Blackbird Portal:



Practically all modern bird identification guides reflect a response to, or dialogue with, a 26-year-old Roger Tory Peterson who, in 1934, created a birding breakthrough with the creation of his A Field Guide to the Birds (1934). Does this claim sound exaggerated?

Perhaps. But perhaps not.

The young Peterson unequivocally revolutionized bird identification, moving it from a museum-based and specimen-based pursuit to one that could be enjoyed and managed by almost anyone with binoculars and sufficient field time to understand and appreciate that bird identification “may be run down by impressions, patterns, and distinctive marks, rather than by the anatomical differences and measurements that the collector would find useful” (Peterson, 1934). With Peterson’s “new plan,” stressing color-values (rather than actual colors), profiles, and outstanding marks, even at a distance, bird watching would never be the same again.

Since then, there has seemingly always been a question of how much detail one might want, or need, in order to make an identification, thus marking the progressive contributions of all field guides since the introduction of the first Peterson guide. And all birders are the better for it.

An example of a recent variation on this theme and deserving special mention was The Shorebird Guide by Michael O’Brien, Richard Crossley, and Kevin Karlson (Houghton Mifflin 2006) – a guide which effectively deepened the emphasis on size, structure, behavior, and general color patterns when making identifications. Richard Crossley took this approach further with his Crossley ID Guide, Eastern Birds (Princeton 2011) – and his follow-up guides to raptor identification and identification of European birds – stressing size, structure, shape, behavior, probability, and color patterns.

Now, Kevin Karlson and Dale Rosselet have pushed the envelope with their new Birding by Impression (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2015), with its subtitle “A Different Approach to Knowing and Identifying Birds.”

The assertion that this is a “different approach” may be debatable however. A birding-by-impression (BBI) approach still represents a back-to-fundamentals approach to bird ID, which underscores the notion that an initial appreciation of size and shape is a prerequisite to the identification process. Karlson and Rosselet do an admirable job in presenting ID issues and ID problems in their family-by-family presentation, all skillfully illustrated with fine photos, and intertwined with regular quizzes throughout their book.

Although some choices of species covered appear to be eclectic; others are eminently logical and much-desired. Clearly, there is something in this book for everybody. Are you having grebe problems? It’s in there. How about egrets? Well done. Plovers? The group is covered. Nightjars? There are some fine hints. And swifts? The book has good material. Are you confused by yellow kingbirds? The book should help. And how about blackbirds? You could learn something from the coverage in this handsome new guide.

Perhaps you will even be convinced that BBI has been developing and deepening ever since the presses at Houghton Mifflin rolled in 1934 with the printing of RTP’s book, including some bumps and detours along the way. Or, perhaps you will choose to deny the connection. Regardless, the new Karlson and Rosselet guide is full of juicy information and ID skill-building that deserves close attention.


Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is an outstanding Important Bird Area (IBA) on the North Carolina Coastal Plain. It is one of North Carolina’s most significant sites for shorebirds and waterfowl, including several species of conservation concern, particularly because of its water impoundments that vary in salinity and are managed for shorebirds, waterfowl, and other migratory birds. Among other things, North Carolina’s largest regularly occurring flock of American Avocets winters there, and the habitat there is also important for Piping Plovers.

This NWR has long had two ongoing conservation issues which have been difficult to resolve: 1) the artificial (soft) stabilization of the beach with dunes to protect Highway 12, and 2) the eventual fate of the related Bonner Bridge and its replacement. Of the many options considered for the bridge, the construction of a replacement bridge could be very damaging to the refuge and could seriously impact habitats for birds.

Last month, the settlement of a lawsuit regarding the Bonner Bridge and North Carolina Highway 12 (NC-12), which runs through the Pea Island NWR, was announced. Because of the settlement, the North Carolina Department of Transportation and the Federal Highways Administration will now be looking at moving portions of NC-12 out of the fragile NWR, off the unstable barrier island, and into Pamlico Sound. The project sections described in the settlement agreement, if fully approved, will provide safe, reliable transportation by moving the road off the parts of Hatteras Island where erosion, washouts, and rising seas frequently shut it down and prevent access. The approach calls for a “phase 1” bridge replacement across Oregon Inlet, followed by a future extension extending five miles down Pamlico Sound before it connects again to NC12.

For more details on the settlement between multiple parties, see here:


You can access information on all of North Carolina’s IBAs (as of 2010) here:


And 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:



PVC pipes used to mark boundaries at over three million mining claims and similar pipes on federal lands have proven to be deadly traps for certain species in the American West. Tragically, small birds often see the opening of PVC mining claim markers and other pipes – such as fence or gate posts – as openings suitable for nesting. When birds go in, however, some may never come out. We previously covered this story in December 2011:


Last month, more than 100 groups signed a letter to the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the USDA Forest Service (FS) concerning this problem. In the letter, the groups called on the two agencies to accelerate efforts to address this long-standing threat to birds at mining claims under their jurisdiction.

You can read a copy of this letter, originally circulated by the American Bird Conservancy, and see all the groups that called for change, here:



Last month, we described the announcement of intent from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to strengthen implementation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) in order to address some new “incidental takes” from some oil pit, power line, communications towers, and other potential hazards. Our report indicated that comments were to be due by the 27th of this month:


In what seemed to be by many as a reaction to this proposal, the U.S. House of Representatives passed and sent to the Senate an appropriations bill for Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (CJS), HR 2578, which contained a rider. This rider, presented by Congressman Duncan (R-3-SC), amendment 347, would defund enforcement of the MBTA by the Department of Justice for one year.

Bird conservationists around the country were stunned and outraged, prompting a flood of letters, calls, and e-mails to the Senate to make sure the rider would not be part of the Senate companion bill.

While the Senate struck the anti-MBTA rider from its initial consideration of the CJS appropriations bill, there is still a chance that it could reemerge. Congressman Duncan has been trying to get a similar amendment through the House Interior Appropriations bill.

You can get more information from the Ornithology Exchange, here:



It was only a matter of time, but we are now about to get a glimpse of the bird-watching future.

In a true breakthrough, computer researchers and bird enthusiasts have now developed a computer program able to identify hundreds of North American bird species by photograph. Called Merlin Bird Photo ID, the results were presented at a Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition (CVPR) conference held in Boston on 8 June. Essentially, the identifier is capable of recognizing 400 of the mostly commonly encountered birds in the United States and Canada.

“It gets the bird right in the top three results about 90% of the time, and it’s designed to keep improving the more people use it,” said Jessie Barry at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

To see if Merlin can identify the species in your photo, you can upload an image of the bird and tell Merlin where and when you took it. Then to orient Merlin, you draw a simple box around the bird and sequentially click on the bird’s bill, eye, and tail. Merlin, almost magically, does the rest.

Merlin’s success, according to the researchers and developers, relies on collaboration between computers and humans. The computer gets to recognize each species from tens of thousands of images identified and labeled by bird enthusiasts. It also taps in to more than 70 million sightings recorded by birders in the eBird database, reducing its search to the species found at the location and time of year when the photo was taken. Perhaps best of all, because the Merlin photo identifier uses machine-learning techniques, it has the potential to improve the more people use it.

According to Serge Belongie, a professor of Computer Science at Cornell Tech. “The state-of-the-art in computer vision is rapidly approaching that of human perception, and with a little help from the user, we can close the remaining gap and deliver a surprisingly accurate solution.”

Merlin’s computer vision system was developed by Steve Branson and Grant Van Horn of the Visipedia project, led by professors Pietro Perona at the California Institute of Technology and Serge Belongie at Cornell Tech. Their work was made possible with support from Google, the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech, and the National Science Foundation.

You can try it with some of your own bird photos here:


What’s next? Would it be broad-scale photo recognition in aerial waterfowl surveys? Could it be digital ID reliance in long-term seabird surveys? Would the system eventually be modified to be built into what we today call binoculars, so that the observer gets ID help while seeing the bird itself and in real time?

Some birders are claiming that Merlin will take “all the fun out of birding.” Still, using binoculars a century ago was a step forward from shotgun ornithology. And few people today, in the age of digital images, mourn the loss of Kodachrome.

Perhaps the real question will be: How can helping us with this new technology help the birds?


If you want a free pass to all National Wildlife Refuges that charge for entry – Santa Ana NWR in Texas, Forsythe NWR in New Jersey, Bosque del Apache NWR in New Mexico, Ding Darling NWR in Florida, Bombay Hook NWR in Delaware, Parker River NWR in Massachusetts, Ridgefield NWR in Washington, and more – get yourself the latest Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, often called the “Duck Stamp.”

Carrying the stamp constitutes a free pass to all the NWRs in the US that charge for entry. The latest Stamp was released for sale at the end of June. This is the first of these stamps to cost $25, an increase of $10 over the previous price of the stamp. The new stamp shows a lovely pair of Ruddy Ducks, an image painted by Jennifer Miller, of Olean, New York. Miller is only the third woman ever to have her art grace a Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp.

Besides being a free NWR pass through next June and a fine collection item, it is a true conservation-funding vehicle. Proceeds from the Stamp go into the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund (MBCF) to secure habitat in the National Wildlife Refuge System, mostly grasslands and wetlands today.

If access matters, so should holding a Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp.

You can find out more on the stamp and its conservation uses from the Friends of the Migratory Bird/Duck Stamp:


and from the Federal Duck Stamp Office:



Early last month, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) reported a Bald Eagle killed alongside a road in Monroe County in upstate New York, . The bird, a male banded with the number 03142, had actually been an individual that had been brought to New York from Minnesota as a youngster in 1977 and released at Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. The USGS Banding Lab Longevity Records indicate that the eagle turned out to be the oldest banded Bald Eagle on record to date – older by a surprising five years. Once this 38-year-old male reached breeding age in 1981, he began nesting at Hemlock Lake, about 50 miles to the west of Minnesota NWR which is today part of Hemlock-Canadice State Forest. The Hemlock Lake nest territory continued, and this eagle became a steady and successful father to many eaglets fledged from that site for many more years.

“In my first year as the Minnesota DNR Nongame Wildlife Program Supervisor, 1977,” remarked Carrol Henderson, “I arranged for the capture of four Minnesota nestling Bald Eagle chicks for restoration in New York and accompanied Peter Nye of the New York DEC to northern Minnesota where we hired a tree climber and took a total of four chicks – a chick from each of several nests, leaving a healthy chick in each nest.” One of those chicks was 03142.

Peter Nye, the now retired DEC Wildlife Biologist who spearheaded New York’s Bald Eagle Restoration Program, commented on the bird, “His longevity, 38 years, although ingloriously cut short by a motor vehicle, is also a national record for known life-span of a wild Bald Eagle. All I can say is, hats off to you, 03142; job well done!”

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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/2015/07/the-birding-community-e-bulletin-july-2015/

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