Birding Community E-bulletin: December 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).

Rarity Focus
Will Ontario Protect Birds From Buildings? 
Book Notes: Whoooo
Poached Eggs
Tip of the Month: Dangerous Jetties
CBC4Kids Season
IBA News
More on LWCF
She’s Baaaack 





Rarity Focus

Rufous-backed Robin, a bird of western Mexico, was first recorded in the U.S. in 1960, in Arizona, near Nogales. Since 1965, at least one Rufous-backed Robin has been found almost every year somewhere in the U.S., mostly in fall or winter. Most of these have been reports from Arizona, but also from California, New Mexico, Texas, and even, rarely, in Nevada and Utah.

The bird is still a rarity however, and we mentioned the species in passing in our January 2013 issue – when multiple individuals were found in Arizona, Nevada, and California. Nonetheless, Rufous-backed Robin has never been profiled as a rarity of the month in the E-bulletin.

The Arizona sightings have mainly been from late October to April. This seems to correspond to their status in northwest Mexico where they regularly engage in winter wanderings. At at any season, Rufous-backed Robins seem to prefer dense riparian vegetation and, less frequently, ornamental plantings in towns. Generally, they have a skulking behavior and seldom associate with American Robins

In late October, Joe Veverka, who works for the National Park Service and lives in Ajo, Arizona, came across a Rufous-backed Robin at the Ajo-Gibson Neighborhood Park, also known as the Forrest “Rick” Rickard Neighborhood Park in the little town of Ajo. While Ajo may not really be quite that “little,” it is surely out of the way. It’s about two and a half hours from Phoenix and Tucson, which places it about 45 minutes beyond the middle of nowhere! (Admittedly, Ajo also serves as a gateway to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, but the town is nonetheless remote.) More importantly, the park where the robin was found which is dominated by a grass-covered playground, is only about an acre in size.

The point of this story is that the discovery of this rarity would have been inconceivable unless a local birder with a real interest in the neighborhood had not been observant.

But it gets better. While the rare robin was found on the afternoon of 28 October, by 31 October two Rufous-backed Robins were reported. And on 2 November there were three individuals reported in the area, either on park lawn or near fruit trees in adjacent yards.

One Rufous-backed Robin was significant enough, but three would be astounding!

At least one of the birds was seen regularly through 14 November, and then sporadically through at least 23 November.




In 2013, an Ontario Court made it clear that the Canadian province had the power to regulate building owners responsible for killing birds at window strikes. The court found that reflected light from building windows would be considered a “contaminant” under the Environmental Protection Act.

But the resulting voluntary approach encouraging building owners to install non-reflective glass, window coverings, and turn off lights has been insufficient to curtail the number of birds killed by striking windows. Too many migrating birds continue to get disoriented by lights, then strike windows and eventually die. Even the annual report of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, Ellen Schwartzel, says that not enough has been done to minimize this avian mortality.

Her report, released on 3 November, recommended that the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change publicly clarify how it will regulate reflected light from buildings in an effort to protect birds. Schwartzel suggested that high rise buildings should be required to obtain Environmental Compliance Approval, which would allow for only limited amounts of light-pollutants under specific conditions.

But the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change has indicated that such a “regulatory framework would be difficult to enforce.” Accordingly, the government is proposing a draft regulatory amendment to exempt reflected light from buildings from requiring an Environmental Compliance Approval.

At the same time, the Toronto-based Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) continues to collect damning evidence of bird deaths caused by building collisions at many high-risk sites.

Indeed, an Environment Canada study released in 2013 stated that over 240 million bird deaths in Canada were attributable to indirect human factors, such as cat predation and collisions with buildings.

The issue of light-regulation is now under scrutiny and consideration. The Ontario court decision of 2013 created a regulatory gap that the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change has yet to seriously address.

For more information, see details here: am980.ca/2015/11/10/ontario-may-regulate-tall-buildings-to-protect-birds/

And see here for recommendations from FLAP, encouraging comments to the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change by 4 December: flap.org/action_alert.php






Scott Weidensaul, that’s who. His recent book, the latest addition to the “Peterson” reference-guide series from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is on owls. Owls of North America and the Caribbean is a model of how “family-group” guides ought to be approached.

There are three excellent reasons to pay attention to this book and its coverage:

  • It provides vital information for all the owls of Canada, the continental U.S., Mexico, and the Caribbean, not just Canada and the U.S.
  • Each species account is carefully done and includes information on life-histories replete with information on taxonomy, distribution (with maps), identification, vocalization, habitat and niche, nesting and breeding, behavior, and other essentials. It’s not just another identification guide.
  • The photo selection is representational and instructional. Owl photos are never easy to take; however, Weidensaul has assembled an excellent collection.

Not surprisingly from this author, these mini-life-histories with their curious and highly informative details are well assembled and highly readable. They never read like autopsies, or like mere collections of factoids. A final comment: Weidensaul is not reluctant to discuss what is not known about these mysterious birds. The book, read “in reverse,” can also serve as a collection of fine hints for aspiring and ambitious owl-researchers.




Timothy Wheeler, an American documentary filmmaker, recently unveiled Poached, an hour-and-a-half documentary made in the UK. It probes the ugly side of a bird obsession there: illegal egg-collecting. On the surface, it’s a film about the egg thieves who rob the nests of rare birds, such as Red-backed Shrike, Osprey, White-tailed Eagle, and Golden Eagle. It is also about a compulsion to engage in a kind of pathology (i.e., kleptomania) with the objects of desire being bird eggs.

The film, released in October, is still making the rounds.

The criminal perpetrators in this documentary are up against a United Kingdom national police initiative called, “Operation Easter,” where thousands of eggs are confiscated in police raids. Some of these stolen eggs have been found strapped under beds, beneath floorboards, and hidden away in secret rooms. Also profiled in the pursuit of the egg thieves is an investigative branch of the Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds (RSPB).

Filmmaker Wheeler obtained remarkable access to several men convicted for the stealing of eggs – men who were willing to discuss (and sometimes brag about) their criminal pasts. One collector actually has been banned from entering Scotland during bird-breeding season. Another, still active and non-contrite egg thief, admits to stealing more than 100 eggs a year for his hoard of more than 3,000 specimens.

Poached, through the production company of Doc Life Films, delves into the psychology of these egg collectors as they reveal their unique obsessions.

In the words of one American reviewer, “The thieves who agree to be interviewed ironically claim to be bird lovers, but on the whole appear to be poorly socialized, single men without particularly viable social skills.”

Fortunately, the intensity of egg-collecting has long since disappeared on this side of the Atlantic, but it still lingers on to some degree in the UK.

For more details on this documentary, including a two-minute trailer, see here: poachedmovie.com/




Soon thousands of bird enthusiasts around North America – and beyond – will be afield participating in the time-honored Christmas Bird Count. They will be searching woodlands, gazing across marshes, walking through grasslands, traversing beaches, and, almost, but not quite, beating the bushes.

Many of these observers may be visiting, as mentioned, ocean beaches, from coast to coast. Depending on location, they could be searching for sea ducks, cormorants, gannets, gulls, and winter-shorebirds. In the process some will be visiting rock jetties. Jetty visits in particular can present some dangers, especially in colder regions.

Of course, we are talking about large rock structures that project from the land out into water. Many of these jetties provide entrances to harbors – but there are others at rivers, used for regulating flow. Whether or not you live or go birding along the coast or in colder areas, what follows is probably good to know.

Simply: Be careful!

There have been a number of cold-weather accidents reported from jetties during winter at many coastal locations, including accidents occurring during Christmas Bird Counts. Ice formed on the rocks at these locations, with the addition of wave-action, can make the situation treacherous. For example, we know of incidents in New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Texas, California, and Oregon, to mention just a few.

One such incident stands out, from early March, 2009, at Barnegat Inlet, New Jersey. One intrepid birder-photographer, Howard B. Eskin, ended up inside the jetty structure, upside-down and trapped between two fifteen-foot, granite boulders. See here: howardsview.com/Jetty/Jetty.html

We don’t discourage anyone from going out on rock jetties to watch or photograph bird, but our tip of the month is not to go out alone on a jetty and to be very, very careful if you do.




And on the subject of Christmas Bird Counts, we have a related reminder. You can help celebrate winter birds by assisting on a Christmas Bird Count for Kids (CBC4Kids), a creative birdwatching event for young birders and their families. There are many ways to participate across the U.S. and Canada.

The local CBC4Kids begins with an introduction and mini-workshop on binocular basics and bird ID, geared to prepare young birders for an enjoyable counting experience. Following the presentations, skilled bird watchers lead small birding teams (youth participants and their parents) on birding excursions for 1-2 hours. Once the trips and associated surveys are complete, all teams gather to tally their observations and share the highlights.

Here’s the playbook on how it gets done: sonomabirding.com/resources/PDF-Files/CBC4KIDS-2013.pdf

Colleagues in Canada (at Bird Studies Canada) already have a CBC4Kids events map available. See here: birdscanada.org/volunteer/cbc4kids/index.jsp?targetpg=cbckidsfind&lang=EN






The Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve (WHSRN) council recently approved the request to expand the boundaries of the Estero Rio Colorado WHSRN Site in northwest Mexico by 49,350 hectares, upgrade its category from International to Hemispheric Importance, and rename the site as “Alto Golfo de California y Delta de Rio Colorado,” or Upper Gulf of California and Rio Colorado Delta.

The original 240,000-hectare Estero Rio Colorado WHSRN site, in coastal Baja California and Sonora, now includes a 45-kilometer stretch – those new 49,350 hectares – of Sonoran coastline that is within the biosphere reserve. The expanded area contains sandy beaches that, according to recent monitoring data, host more than 6,000 Red Knots of the roselaari subspecies. This number represents an estimated 35 percent of the subspecies’ population, qualifying the expanded site for “Hemispheric Importance.”

Not surprisingly, this WHSRN site overlaps with a designated IBA site, the 107,702-hectare Delta del Rio Colorado. The site also contains three areas designated as Wetlands of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention.

The inclusion of the reserve’s new coastal habitat in a WHSRN site should bring greater attention to its role for shorebird species, including those listed as federally endangered or threatened.

Find more information here: whsrn.org/news/article/mexico-estero-rio-colorado-whsrn-site-expanded

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 shenanigans over LWCF continue, alas.

One would hope that the positive half century experience over the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) would be enough to reauthorize the legislation. But no.

As readers of the E-bulletin many know, LWCF is based on a logical premise. It promotes the use of revenues from the development of one natural resource – our offshore oil and gas – to support the conservation of another – U.S. lands and waters. While authorized to the tune of $900 million a year – for parks, wildlife refuges, forests, trails and other public open spaces, be they federal, state, or local – it hac almost never been fully appropriated at that amount.

Still, the efforts to stall or end LWCF persist. The latest effort comes from the Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rob Bishop (R- UT) who presented a proposal last month to extensively restructure – if not dismantle – the LWCF.

This proposal has a number of disappointing elements, including:

  • Using 20 percent of LWCF funds for “workforce education,” such as training programs for employees of the oil and gas industry,
  • Reducing or eliminating opportunities for landholders to create conservation easements,
  • Limiting federal land acquisition to 3.5 percent of LWCF funds, and
  • Extending the fund to only seven more years

LWCF has been crucial in securing important bird habitat and providing related access for a half century. It’s sad to see it under such unrelenting assault.

For more information on this assault, see an assessment from the National Wildlife Refuge Association: refugeassociation.org/2015/11/new-draft-house-bill-would-gut-the-land-and-water-conservation-fund/







We end with a real upbeat story.

The world’s oldest known seabird has returned to Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced last month that the female Laysan Albatross named Wisdom was spotted at the remote island on 19 November.

We have reported on Wisdom previously, including on March 2013, when one of her chicks was observed pecking its way out of an egg: refugeassociation.org/?p=7357/#wisdom

Wisdom has been a banded bird since 1956. The much-respected ornithologist, Chan Robbins, first put a band on Wisdom in December of that year, and multiple bands, each significantly worn away by time, the sea, and the sea air, have been replaced multiple times. Wisdom is estimated to be at least 64 years old, but she could actually be older.

Laysan Albatrosses typically mate for life, but Wisdom has likely had more than one mate. She has raised as many as 26 chicks over her lifetime. Breeding albatrosses and their mates will often spend about half the year rearing and feeding their young. They will forage hundreds of miles out at sea for squid, flying-fish eggs, and other yummy morsels.

As readers of this E-bulletin may know, Midway Atoll NWR is about 1,200 miles northwest of Honolulu. It is also part of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.

And, by the way, Chan Robbins, the ornithologist who first banded Wisdom, is also still with us, at 97 years of age.




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.)

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Wayne R. Petersen, Director
Massachusetts Important Bird Areas (IBA) Program
Mass Audubon
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Permanent link to this article: https://www.refugeassociation.org/2015/12/birding-community-e-bulletin-december-2015/

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