Building Bridges for Birds in Colombia’s Sky Island

Violet-crowned Woodnymph. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik

Violet-crowned Woodnymph. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik

Editor’s note: As fall approaches and many of our birds are now heading back to their wintering grounds, we here at ABC look back as staff member Dan Lebbin recounts work in South America when the same birds were migrating north during spring migration.

I left Dulles International airport in a strange April blizzard and fortunately arrived in on Colombia’s Caribbean coast on time without missing my connection in Panama City. The streets were full of people celebrating a local soccer team’s victory, instantly creating an air of excitement.

I was excited too: I was on my way to reunite with two donor agencies and a dozen partner conservation organizations from across Latin America and the Caribbean (and hopefully to see some good birds along the way).

Jorge Brocca enjoys the view at Colombia's El Dorado Reserve. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik

Meeting participant Jorge Brocca enjoys the view at Colombia’s El Dorado Reserve. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik

We were there to discuss how all of our organizations can improve our management to sustain the conservation results and reserves we have created over the long term and accomplish even more together, with a special focus on developing tourism as one tool for generating unrestricted income for institution and reserve activities.

It was all about building bridges across organizations in order to strengthen our partnership network spanning the hemisphere–in all the places where the most endangered birds, both resident and migratory, occur.

White-vented Plumeteer. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik

White-vented Plumeteer. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik

Seven of us from American Bird Conservancy made the trip to Minca for our meetings. Beforehand, five of us were able to stop in arid scrublands where Chestnut-winged Chachalacas were plentiful and in a mangrove swamp where we saw the critically endangered Sapphire-bellied Emerald. (There is some doubt whether this is a valid species, or whether it is merely a local form of the more widespread Sapphire-throated Emerald. Regardless, we enjoyed watching one.)

The workshop in Minca was about reserve and institutional management, a topic that may sound as dry as this place had become after four months without rain, but our group was energized by the idea of how we can improve our work and fundraising. This was followed by field trips to El Dorado Reserve, managed by Fundación ProAves, where we held a workshop on best practices for reforestation projects focusing on measuring and tracking the results of these efforts.

Black-fronted Wood-quail. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik

Black-fronted Wood-quail. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik

El Dorado and Minca are located in the Santa Marta Mountains of northern Colombia, which is a mecca for bird watchers. These mountains are the tallest in Colombia, are perched directly above the Caribbean Sea, and sit apart from the main Andean chains. From El Dorado, we could see the coast roughly 6,400 feet (1,950 m) below.

Our meetings not only represented a convergence of conservation organizations, but also coincided with a convergence of boreal and tropical migrants with an extraordinary diversity of resident birds. The Santa Marta Mountains boast the highest concentration of endemic bird species in the Andes and are located at the confluence of bird communities associated with northern South America and Central America.

Before breakfast and the start of our planned events, we would go out bird-watching and find stunning endemics like the Golden-winged Sparrow on the ground, while flocks of Scarlet Tanagers and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks gathered in the trees above preparing to leave for their breeding grounds in the United States and Canada. We even saw a Prothonotary Warbler at the Hotel Minca.

These birds remind us what we are working so hard for!

Blue-and-yellow Macaw. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik

Blue-and-yellow Macaw. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik

ABC’s partners presented impressive statistics of how they are managing their organizations, fundraising for projects, earning operating dollars through ecotourism, and generally achieving great conservation results on the ground. Participants engaged in lively discussion, despite the long days and high temperatures in our meeting space.

Enrique Ortiz of blue moon fund gave important feedback from his dual perspective as a donor and leader of a conservation organization. Freddy Garmendia of the Honduran group ASIDE presented a very different model of income generation for projects, including starting business first to generate funds to later spend on the project goals. ABC’s Benjamin Skolnik presented an overview of payment for ecosystem service schemes providing financing to projects in multiple countries. ABC’s Holly Robertson presented on how ABC can help partners raise funds and promote tourism together.

Black Flowerpiercer. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik

Black Flowerpiercer. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik

Many ideas for follow-up work emerged related to training and tourism development. Opportunities for future collaboration also emerged – for instance, representatives of USAID and our Colombian partner ProAves began a discussion about how to promote tourism in the area of El Dorado Reserve.

The big lesson that emerged, however, was quite simple: there is no magic to sustainability of conservation organizations and reserves. Instead, it requires constant hard work and creativity to generate sufficient and diverse funding streams annually.

Crested Caracara. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik

Crested Caracara. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik

Most participants continued from Minca on to El Dorado Reserve following the meetings to participate in a reforestation “best practices” workshop. We drove uphill to the reserve, stopping along the way at a few points to see birds like the Rusty-breasted Antpitta and recently split Santa Marta Antwren (previously lumped with Long-tailed Antwren).

At the reserve, we immediately dove in with presentations from partners about their experience in reforestation, complete with planting statistics and costs. We discussed best practices for planning and monitoring reforestation and restoration projects at all stages of these kinds of projects, including setting goals, measuring benefits to communities, measuring success for tree planting (during each of its own phases: seed collection, germination, nursery, transport, planting, maintenance in the field), and measuring the impact of this effort on other indices such as bird populations, water, and soil.

ABC’s Jason Berry gave a tutorial on entering bird monitoring data into eBird, which we then practiced taking the necessary data in the field. Andrew Rothman, ABC’s Director of Migratory Birds, gave an overview of ABC’s work on migratory birds, the opportunities for our partners to become more involved with these efforts, and how their activities fit in with the larger alliance of institutions working together across the hemisphere. Finally, we outlined key questions that will form the basis of a manual of best practices for reforestation and restoration activities. We hope to develop this manual further to follow up on this workshop.

This is all to emphasize how seriously we at ABC take partnership: We know that only together, working with organizations across the hemisphere, will we achieve our goal to “bring back the birds.” It’s well worth our staff time and effort to build these bridges with other groups, and that is done person to person and on site where the birds are.

White-tailed Starfrontlet. Photo by Jorge Brocca

White-tailed Starfrontlet. Photo by Jorge Brocca

In the days that followed, we toured the reserve, including upper portions where trees had been planted and a small nursery near the lodge. Everyone saw the endemic Santa Marta Parakeet and nest boxes for which ProAves has deployed to encourage their reproduction.

At the end of the meeting, we showed some of the best photographs taken by participants of the trip (many shown here), including some truly exceptional shots taken by Jorge Brocca of the Sociedad Ornitológica de la Hispaniola.

Despite being inside most of the time, we still saw many birds, including skulking antpittas and tapaculos. Several people had great views of the powerful Black-and-Chestnut Eagle, a White-tipped Queztal building a nest, and the Golden-breasted Fruiteater. Black-fronted Wood-quail and Colombian Brush-Finch visited feeders and compost piles at the lodge. Most in the group saw the endemic screech-owl behind the lodge after dark. And on the last day, we had a Blossomcrown on our way back down the mountain, rapidly visiting pink flowers outside a store that sold blackberry wine.

If you are interested in visiting the El Dorado reserve run by ProAves to see these birds yourself, please see Conservation Birding for more information or contact EcoTurs directly.

Editor’s Note: ABC would like to thank blue moon fund and The Jeniam Foundation for supporting ABC’s sustainability work with partners as well as the support for reforestation activities of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service through their Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act (NMBCA) grant program.

Daniel Lebbin works in ABC’s International Division, leading projects in Peru, Bolivia, and Chile to create and expand nature reserves for the hemisphere’s rarest birds. Dan coauthored The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation published in 2010. He received his Ph.D. from Cornell University, where he studied habitat specialization of Amazonian birds and spent a year as a Fulbright scholar in Peru.


Should We Stay or Should We Go Now: Evacuation from Laysan

August 5-18, 2014 | By Barbara Heindl

This past week we hit the halfway point of our 90-day tour on Laysan to monitor Millerbirds, and it showed. All of the Laysan castaways were in the groove.

We were monitoring over 10 active nests and had seen a remarkable 90 birds out of the 103 that were banded as of the end of the 2013 monitoring season. Despite all the time we had already spent in ‘NIMI Land’–our affectionate name for the Millerbird breeding grounds–we were still seeing new birds, including two translocated females who had been eluding us. It is an amazing feeling, to still be solving mysteries and chipping away at remaining questions despite being on the island for over a month already.

After a full month on Laysan biologists are still finding banded birds who have eluded them until this point. Photo by Megan Dalton.

After a full month on Laysan biologists are still finding banded birds who have eluded them until this point. Photo by Megan Dalton.

Lifestyle-wise we were also in the groove. I stopped thinking about all the fresh foods I was missing during mealtime and was delighted by new creations that seemed to come out of the woodwork. Where did this pumpkin custard come from? Beet salad? Delightful! Mango lassies? How refreshing! Living was good on Laysan.

It was in the midst of this swing that we got the news: the two tropical storms the rest of the team in the main Hawaiian Islands had been keeping an eye on had turned into three: Iselle, Julio, and Geneviève. The three of them were tracking to our southwest, south, and southeast respectively, with Julio projected to travel between Laysan and Lisianski. We were being evacuated within 24 hours by naval vessels in the area.

Last-minute Packing: 24 hours til Evacuation

The next 24 hours went by quickly. We immediately started backing up all our data and preparing camp not only for our imminent departure, but for the potential beat down from the forecasted storms. We filled buckets with sand to weigh down loose debris that birds had burrowed under, screwed all doors on our tents and structures shut, and tried to eat all the ‘good’ perishable food we had been saving at the bottom of our solar freezer for later in season. Not knowing if or when we would be able to return to Laysan meant there was no way to make it last. Needless to say we all ate a lot of bacon, sausage, and cheese in those last 24 hours – even the vegetarian – but in our minds it was better than seeing all that food go to waste.

During this time we were in consistent contact with the vessel that was hopefully coming to pick us up, but it was unclear how the pickup would go. We knew the ship in the area was a well-equipped Navy vessel, but would they pick us up by helicopter or boat? Did they have boats small enough to get past the barrier reef, or would we have to swim out to meet them? Would we be able to take any personal items or were there restrictions? Once they picked us up, then what? Would we wait out the storms and go back to Laysan? Would they take us to another island in the area or were we along for the ride joining them for wherever they were heading to?

We tried our best to mentally and physically prepare for all the options, having our gear numbered and prioritized in case we could take only one bucket. Passports, wallets, and data made the first cut, cameras and laptops in the next, and everything else followed.

Operation Jackpot

Late in the evening on 7 August, we got the updated plan. The USS Comstock would be in the area at 3 am, we were to meet two metal hulled inflatable boats on our beach with all our gear at 07:30, and they would take us to the USS Comstock from there. They had ruled against a helicopter pickup to avoid the chance of hitting birds in the area, a very serious threat given the hundreds of thousands of nesting birds on the island at any given time… a number that we had told them of early on and that they verified en route. From there, where they were taking us was still anyone’s guess, but they said it would most likely be their current destination of Hong Kong.

Early that morning we sadly trudged our numbered buckets down to the beach and waited to hear from the ship on our radios. It took a while to spot the carrier on the horizon, and at first glance it didn’t seem that big, certainly not that much bigger than the 180 ft NOAA vessel that had dropped us off. Not long after we got the last of our gear down to the beach we got word from the ship, they were 4 miles off the coast of the island and deploying the small boats to come and get us. USS Comstock operation “Jackpot” was already underway (their name for the mission, not ours).

The crew waits with all their gear on the beach at Laysan to be picked up by USS Comstock. Photo by Barbara Heindl.

The crew waits with all their gear on the beach at Laysan to be picked up by USS Comstock. Photo by Barbara Heindl.

After some searching we noticed two speedy vessels aimed to the north end of the island. After a little direction they reached the edge of the barrier reef and aimed south to the only decent channel through the reef and to the beach where we waited for them. The smaller of the two boats ventured inside, skillfully giving wide birth to a young monk seal swimming in the bay. Upon getting to shore we were greeted by ‘Hey! You guys want a lift? We just happen to be in the area if you do.’

We appreciated their humor, but it was a hard question for us. We were more than thankful and grateful that they had been in the area but none of the six of us (three Millerbird and three NOAA monk seal researchers) were happy to be leaving Laysan. We were happy to be safe, yes; but our work on Laysan was definitely not done and to be leaving prematurely felt a little unsettling. Regardless we met them with a smile and started passing our buckets over. They transferred our buckets to the second small boat and came back to get us.

As we sped outside of the reef and towards the ever growing USS Comstock, it was undeniably much, much larger than the NOAA vessel that had initially dropped us off on Laysan. I looked back to see our tiny island disappearing over the horizon. That view was one I hadn’t remembered getting when we were dropped off, and it was a hard view to take in not knowing, whether we would be back and if we did what shape the island would be in.

Navy Crew from the USS Comstock arrive to pick up the crew at Laysan. Photo by Hope Ronco.

Navy Crew from the USS Comstock arrive to pick up the crew at Laysan. Photo by Hope Ronco.

As we got closer to the USS Comstock, I remember seeing an uneasy look on one of my co-workers faces, knowing that she was prone to sea sickness and the seas were not the calmest. I remember saying ‘Don’t worry, we’re close.’ But the boat kept going, Laysan getting smaller and smaller, the Comstock getting larger and larger, until finally we were alongside a giant windowless wall of the Navy vessel with only a rope ladder hanging down from a platform somewhere about halfway up the eight-story ship.

While staring up the looming wall, someone leaned out from the middle somewhere “Who’s first? You’re all being timed so make it count!” I looked down the line of the Laysan evacuees, and the designated first one up was hanging halfway off the boat, emptying out her breakfast to the fishes. The second one up was Robby, who when he realized he was next in line scaled the swinging ladder with ease.

I was next, trying to think about how Robby climbed up, did he skip rungs? How did he get up so fast? What happens when you get to the top? Where was the safety briefing on this? I tried to time jumping on with the swell and clambered to the top, trying to ignore someone yelling ‘Don’t look down!’ from below. All 11 of us made it up on to the boat fine. We were welcomed by the Executive Officer who took us to the Officer’s Galley to talk to the ship medic, fill out health forms, and get coffee. At that point our destination was still up for debate, but his best guess was that we were going to Hong Kong.

So Where Are We Going Anyways?

The next several hours went by quickly. We were treated to a hot lunch, chicken cordon bleu with fresh salad, not what I had envisioned for my first meal off of Laysan, but it was still delicious. The Captain had us up to his office for coffee and pastries and explained the whole situation. The NOAA monk seal researchers from Pearl and Hermes Atoll and Lisianski Island had been evacuated by other ships in the fleet at the same time, so there were 11 evacuees total. We were to be flown on an Osprey (a rotational winged aircraft) to the USS Makin Island to meet up with two other evacuees and then another flight to the USS San Diego to meet with the last three, and then on to our final destination – Midway Atoll.

Megan Dalton prepared to get on an Osprey to Midway Island. Photo by Barbara Heindl.

Megan Dalton prepared to get on an Osprey to Midway Island. Photo by Barbara Heindl.

Given the possibilities, hearing that we were headed to Midway was a relief. From there we would be able to enter and proof our Millerbird data, assist the Midway biologists surveying local Laysan Ducks, and partake in their coveted soft serve ice cream machine while we waited for the next flight to Honolulu. The next flight was scheduled for about a week and a half later.

This emergency evacuation really illustrates how remote and exposed we were while on Laysan. With a Naval fleet already in the area, it took 30 hours from when we heard the Navy was on the way till we landed foot on Midway. I can assure you no other situation would have had us off the island sooner.

An Osprey drops the crew off at Midway Island where they meet up with other Northwest Hawaiian Island evacuees. Photo by Darlene Olsen-Host.

An Osprey drops the crew off at Midway Island where they meet up with other Northwest Hawaiian Island evacuees. Photo by Darlene Olsen-Host.

Back to Laysan

While we hope Laysan weathered the storms in our absence, a part of me reflects on the timing of them and their threat to the Northwestern Hawaiian Island species. Unpredictable storms like this are one of the many reasons Millerbirds were translocated from Nihoa to Laysan to create a second population. Having multiple populations helps to ensure that one poorly timed and placed storm doesn’t take out all the remaining Millerbirds on the planet.

Based on the actual path of the storms, it looks like Laysan lucked out this time and none of the storms went over the island. We are all optimistic that Laysan and the Millerbirds persevered with little trouble, and are looking forward to seeing them again soon.

We flew from Midway back to Honolulu on 19 August, and then ship back out to Laysan on a NOAA boat on 30 August. We will head back to Laysan to finish our season and see how the camp fared through the storms. All of us are extremely thankful to the US Navy and Marines who picked us up and were extremely impressed with their skill and compassion during operation “Jackpot.”

Throughout the entire endeavor the Navy and Marine personnel treated us with nothing short of extreme kindness and respect. Lots of thanks also goes out to all the folks on Midway who made sure we were safe and well fed during our time there, making sure that us castaways felt more than at home, and keeping us busy during our stay.

heidiBarbara Heindl is a field biologist on Laysan Island monitoring translocated Nihoa Millerbirds. She has also done extensive work on Kaua‘i, Alaska, and across the United States’ mainland. She is originally from Wisconsin and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Painting the Birds of Buenaventura

By Harold Eyster

I sit on a bench, painting the Green Honeycreepers that indulge in the hummingbird feeders at Buenaventura Reserve in southern Ecuador. I’ve been here for two weeks, painting and observing the birds of this preserve.

Green Honeycreeper. Painting by Harold Eyster

Green Honeycreeper. Painting by Harold Eyster

My concentration on my painting is pleasantly disrupted by the fluid elocutions of a group of French birders returning from a hike at the reserve. I don’t speak any French, but this didn’t stop me from understanding the expressions of joy and fulfillment on their faces.

One look at their smiles and I knew that they had seen the Long-wattled Umbrellabird. I could sympathize with the joy they felt, for just the previous day I too had seen this odd-looking forest denizen. I had been hiking through the reserve when I came upon a flock of flame-colored Collared Aracaris, which were soon joined by a larger blackish bird. I focused my binoculars and saw the glaring yellow bill of a Black-mandibled Toucan.

Black-mandibled Toucan. Painting by Harold Eyster

Black-mandibled Toucan. Painting by Harold Eyster

This bird was soon joined by another toucan. But even before I was able to raise my binoculars, the second bird turned towards me, and I saw that it wasn’t a toucan at all. Solid black body, long, rope-like wattle, and a black crest that reached over its bill, giving it an expression of provocative consternation. This was the Long-wattled Umbrellabird.

And the word “long” is an understatement, for the feathered wattle extends from the chin clear past the feet. This is the kind of bird that, when you see a photo of it, even the least gullible observer says, “Wait a minute, is that photo-shopped?” I had finally proven to myself that, yes, this bizarre bird really does exist.

Umbrellabird. Painting by Harold Eyster

Umbrellabird. Painting by Harold Eyster

But the elation resounding off the faces of the French birders told me that they were pleased about something else as well; they must have also seen the El Oro Parakeet.

The endangered El Oro Parakeet was discovered by 1980 in on the western slope of the Andes in southern Ecuador. The entire population of this endemic species is restricted to a strip of forest only 3-6 miles wide, and this thin band of habitat is being narrowed by agriculture, logging, mining, and cattle farming. In 1999, the Jocotoco Foundation, with help from American Bird Conservancy (ABC) and others, began purchasing this section of subtropical forest to create a safe haven for the bird. And thus Buenaventura Reserve was born.

And they were just in time: 57% of this forest in the lower part of the parakeet’s range was cleared between the discovery of the bird and the creation of Buenaventura Reserve.

El Oro Parakeet. Painting by Harold Eyster

El Oro Parakeet. Painting by Harold Eyster

Thanks to additional land acquisition last year supported by ABC, the reserve now measures 4,600 acres and protects the majority of the parakeet population. But the Jocotoco Foundation’s efforts don’t end there: they’ve also begun putting up nest boxes for the parakeets, from which 50 birds successfully fledged in 2011. They’ve also initiated an educational program with local schools to build an appreciation for the outstanding local wildlife.

But the El Oro Parakeet is still endangered. Because the parakeet is a communal nester, it needs large populations in order to breed successfully. Thus the habitat destruction and fragmentation outside the reserve are having devastating effects on the species. But with the continued land acquisition and innovative conservation by the Jocotoco Foundation and its partners, this species has a good chance of persisting.

The creation of Buenaventura Reserve perhaps had a narrow goal: to protect the El Oro Parakeet. But it has accomplished so much more. More than 330 species of birds call this protected hillside home, including other endangered species like the Ecuadorian Tapaculo and the Gray-backed Hawk, and more than 31 species of hummingbirds.

Gray-backed Hawk. Painting by Harold Eyster

Gray-backed Hawk. Painting by Harold Eyster

But this preserve does more than directly protect the birds within its borders: it also fosters a veneration and appreciation of Ecuador’s natural heritage, both within Ecuador and internationally. The reserve and accompanying lodge, Umbrellabird Lodge, connect people from across continents and cultures. Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swiss, German, and English can frequently be heard in the reserve and lodge. But you don’t need to be a polyglot to understand the words. They are exclamations of wonder at the feathered fugitives this reserve protects.

Whooping Motmot. Painting by Harold Eyster

Whooping Motmot. Painting by Harold Eyster

You can learn more about places like Buenaventura Reserve where you can participate in incredible birding while helping to save species on ABC’s Conservation Birding website.

Harold is donating the above paintings and more to the Jocotoco Foundation to raise money for bird conservation. Harold would like to thank the Harvard David Rockefeller International Experience Fund Grant for funding this painting experience in Ecuador.

More of Harold’s paintings from Ecuador can be found at:

Birdlife of the Equator: A Virtual Trip to Ecuador

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Inca Jay, one of many beautiful bird species of Ecuador. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik

By Benjamin Skolnik

Have you ever been to the Equator? If not, I highly recommend taking the journey to the small country of Ecuador (named after zero degrees latitude), which is a wonderfully small nation that is easily traveled, safe, and a sampler of what the tropics have to offer. Ecuador is one of several South American countries where American Bird Conservancy works.

Torrent Duck family in Guango. Photograph by Benjamin Skolnik

Torrent Duck family in Guango. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik

To begin, visit a monument marking the Center of the World (Mitad del Mundo) outside the capital city of Quito. From this perch amongst the Andes Mountains, you will then need to decide whether to continue to explore the highlands north and south, head west down to drier climates and the Pacific coast, fly five hundred miles offshore to the Galapagos Islands, or descend into the Amazon basin to the east.

The birds in all of these regions are outstanding. There are the flightless, fearless birds of the Galapagos, the pockets of endemism in the highlands and drier regions, and the humid rolling hills in the northwestern Chocó region.

But for sheer abundance and variety of plant and animal life, there is no parallel to the wet eastern slope of the Andes. So let’s travel downhill to the rain forest.

Eastern slope forest of Ecuador. Photograph by Benjamin Skolnik

Eastern slope forest of Ecuador. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik

In two short hours, one can drop several thousand feet and traverse a variety of montane and foothill habitats that host well over 500 species of birds. On several recent trips, I have visited this region and been impressed by the diversity of birdlife. The foothill forests receive tremendous rainfall, lying just above the Amazon basin, and harbor lush habitat for tropical species, including our very own warblers.

White-necked Jacobin _Benjamin Skolnik2

White-necked Jacobin. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik

Cerulean Warblers–a rapidly declining migratory species–flock to these moist slopes and spend the winter here. I was lucky to glimpse wintering Cerulean Warblers at the Wild Sumaco lodge and Narupa Reserve.


Cerulean Warbler. Photo by Mike Parr

ABC has supported both of these places, and we have recently helped expand Narupa Reserve, owned and operated by Fundación Jocotoco.

Within the reserve I visited several pasturelands where wood-pewees watched. I discussed with forest guards how they will use machetes to clear weeds surrounding naturally emerging native trees. Our aim is to recreate mature woodlands preferred by the Ceruleans.

Even with his hands up, Benjamin shows how tall and aggressive the grass is here. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik

Even with his hands up, the author is practically dwarfed by tall grass in Narupa Reserve, which can easily overtake emerging trees. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik

Narupa Reserve is yet another place that is not only improving for birds, but for bird lovers, too. A new tent platform was built so visitors can stay a few nights and explore the recently constructed trail system to find warblers, Military Macaws, and–if you are lucky–an Orange-breasted Falcon or two.

Sword-billed Hummingbird. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik

Sword-billed Hummingbird. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik

We hope to see you in Ecuador soon! Learn more about places where you can participate in incredible birding while helping to save species on our Conservation Birding website.

To see more photos, check out the photo gallery:

Benjamin-Skolnik-at-work_Luis-RubelioBenjamin Skolnik is an International Conservation Officer at American Bird Conservancy. He works with partners in Ecuador and Colombia on projects for land protection, ecotourism, and conservation birding. He also coordinates the Alliance for Zero Extinction, a global effort to curb species loss. He is fluent in Spanish and can speak basic Quechua. Benjamin lives in historic Greenbelt, Maryland with his family.

More Millerbirds, More Problems … if You’re a Field Biologist

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Millerbird looks on from her nest after feeding one of her chicks . Photograph by Megan Dalton

22 July–4 August | By Megan Dalton

I was lucky enough to be one of the Millerbird monitors for both this and last year’s tour, and one of the great things about coming back to Laysan is seeing first-hand how the Millerbird population has grown.

Over six months of intensive monitoring in summer 2013, Michelle Wilcox and I were able to confidently approximate how many Millerbirds existed on Laysan (121 adult individuals at the end of September 2013). Since the majority of the birds on the island were banded at that time, we were able to keep track of the number of breeding pairs and territories, along with their nesting successes and failures.

By the end, we felt like we knew ‘NIMI [Nihoa Millerbird] Land’ well enough that if we heard a Millerbird singing, we could guess with reasonable accuracy which individual bird it was.

Trying to Catch Up

Now, the days of knowing each individual are long gone! The Millerbirds on Laysan have been prolific while we’ve been away, and there are many up-and-coming young birds that have carved out new territories between the already established ones. However, there are even more unbanded birds wandering about, who are—rather unhelpful for a field biologist—nomadic and inconspicuous until they get old enough to claim a territory of their own.

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Just one of many unbanded Millerbirds on Laysan giving the biologists headaches. Photograph by Megan Dalton

Answering the question of how many unbanded birds there are, along with getting up to speed with all the other new developments, are proving to be the major challenges for Robby, Barbara, and me this season.

Restoring a Piece of Laysan

Laysan has a well-known history of ecological tragedy, specifically brought about by an introduced population of rabbits who devoured nearly all the vegetation on island in the 1910s and 1920s. I’ve been reading a lot of historical accounts lately relating to the natural state of Laysan just prior to that time period, when I imagine the island must have been near its peak abundance and vivaciousness.

Walter K. Fisher 1902, Laysan Millerbird

Rare portrait of the now-extinct Laysan Millerbird and its nest in native bunchgrass. Photograph by Walter K. Fisher, 1903

One of my favorite accounts was written by Walter K. Fisher in 1903. When describing the fearlessness of birds here, particularly some of the endemic land birds, he writes:

While we sat working, not infrequently the little warbler, or Miller Bird, would perch on our table or chair backs, and the Laysan Rail and Finch would scurry about our feet in unobtrusive search for flies and bits of meat. Each day at meal-time the crimson Honey-eater [Laysan Honeycreeper] flew into the room and hunted for millers [moths].”

Another favorite passage by Hugo H. Schauinsland in 1899 states:

After dinner, if we sat outside in the shade of our cabin to be refreshed by the tradewinds after a hard day’s strenuous work, it would not be long before one of the pretty little brown birds [Laysan Millerbirds] would appear. It would alight on an available knee or perch on the back of a chair to boldly stare at us, or sometimes just to sing us its lovely song. Once, one of these brave little songsters decided to sing its favorite tune perched upon the upper edge of the open book that I held in my hands.

Laysan early 1900s

Laysan in its barren state, completely void of vegetation, as a result of an introduced rabbit population and their appetites, 1923. Photographer unknown

Many things have changed since then—the denuding of the island, the extinction of the endemic Laysan Millerbird, rail, and honeycreeper, along with several plant and insect species—but Laysan has also come a long way in terms of ecological restoration.

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Panoramic shot of Laysan’s northern interior as it looks today in 2014. This area is also known as “NIMI Land.” Photograph by Barbara Heindl

Native bunchgrass, naupaka, and morning glory have recolonized the majority of the island where it once was barren, and a lot of hard work has been put into out-planting native shrubs and sedges as well as controlling and eradicating noxious weeds.

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Young Millerbird nestling, part of a future cohort of breeding Millerbirds on Laysan, rests on the rim of its nest. Photograph by Megan Dalton

And now there’s a growing population of Millerbirds once again, the ones recently translocated from Nihoa that are now living and thriving on Laysan. I look forward to the day when future biologists tasked with surveying Millerbirds are presented with the “problem” of tracking an overwhelming number of birds, with males singing in every direction, and perhaps a Millerbird or two alighting on the edge of an open book.

Megan Dalton Megan Dalton is from Salt Lake City, Utah, and has worked as an avian field biologist for several years on the mainland and in Hawai‘i. She is thrilled to be on Laysan again where she has recently reached her current life goals of being a momentary perch for a curious Laysan Duck and tricking both of her crew mates with her Millerbird song impression.


Fisher, W. K. 1903. Notes on the Birds Peculiar to Laysan Island, Hawaiian Group. Auk 20: 384-397.

Schauinsland, Hugo H. 1996. Three months on a coral island (Laysan), 1899. Translated by Miklos D. F. Udvardy. in Atoll Research Bulletin. 432: 1-61. National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C.

A Tubenose’s First Milestone: Facing the Air and Sea

Photo 5, Alba)tross Ponder the future (Robby Kohley

A young albatross ponders the future. Photo by Robby Kohley

July 5-21, 2014 | By Robby Kohley

Millerbird Update: We have been on Laysan for three weeks, and with camp establishment, familiarization, and general training behind us, we have settled into a daily routine that focuses on population monitoring of Millerbirds.

We are just getting started but we are already excited about our initial discoveries. We have seen 73 of the 109 banded birds known from the end of the last monitoring season in September 2013. We expect this number to continue to grow as we investigate more areas.

Nihoa Millerbird by Megan Dalton

Millerbird nestling banded in 2013 on Laysan. Photo by Megan Dalton

I participated in the pre-translocation work on Nihoa in 2009 and 2010, as well as both translocations and post-release monitoring periods in 2011 and 2012, so the initial founder birds are of particular interest to me. Because of the time spent working and cheering for them, many feel like old friends. In just a short time we have already seen 25 of the 50 original founders and expect to find more.

These founding individuals continue to expand our understanding of Millerbird biology as they repopulate Laysan, with some possibly setting new longevity records for the species. Megan, Barbara, and I are excited to continue the search for more Millerbirds, and share the results in the future.

Coming of Age on Laysan: Albatross Chicks Take First Flight to Sea

One of the motivations for a biologist to keep returning to work on the small island of Laysan is that no matter what time of year, there is some type of exciting natural history spectacle to appreciate. This month has been no exception, with the fledging Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses putting on a stirring show.

A pair of Black-footed Albatross recently arrived on Laysan. Photo: M. Wilcox

Pair of Black-footed Albatross recently arrived on Laysan. Photo: M. Wilcox

The albatross parents have spent 290 days, flown an estimated 50,000 combined miles, and avoided the many perils of the open ocean to get the young albatrosses to this milestone in their life—their first flight.

Photo 3, Effects of Plastic on a young albatross (Barbara He

An unfortunate example of the effects of being fed plastic on a young albatross. Photograph by Barbara Heindl

Unfortunately some of the perils of the open ocean that the adults must overcome in order to successfully raise young include dangerous human-made obstacles. These include thousands of hooks placed out by the long-line fisheries, which can snare and drown birds, and tons of small pieces of plastic floating on the surface of the ocean, which can be ingested directly or indirectly due to their resemblance or association with the birds’ primary food sources. The plastic can gravely affect the adults or be passed on to the young during feeding, causing death due to choking, starvation, or dehydration.

The next step is one the young albatrosses must take on their own, with no guidance from the adults, and it is a big step! They must learn to fly while safely navigating the crashing waves and avoiding the tiger sharks that have gathered just off-shore to gulp down any unlucky albatross that spends too much time sitting on the water. Immediately upon learning to fly, they must travel hundreds of miles to their central feeding grounds in the far North Pacific. This could be compared to a toddler learning to walk and immediately being made to run a marathon in order to get lunch.

Photo 2, Shark Attack (Robby Kohley)

Shark attacking an unlucky young albatross that will not be making it to the far North Pacific. Photo by Robby Kohley

Observing the fledging process is a captivating lesson in animal behavior and the pragmatism of nature. For young albatross, where on the island they hatch and then decide to practice flying can mean the difference between failure and success.

Practice Makes Perfect—If You’re Lucky!

Some individual young albatross practice flying at the South Ledge, which is characterized by crashing waves. Many become caught up by the waves on their first attempt, and with no easy way to escape they quickly become overwhelmed. If they do escape there is a decent chance they are injured or have used up too much energy and burned precious fat reserves that will be needed to make it north. Others, by fortunate circumstance, end up practicing on the inland lake or the calmer bays on the island. These areas allow for many short practice flights, better muscle development—and more second chances!

Photo 4, Yong albatross recovers from wave (Robby  Kohley)

A young Laysan Albatross recovers from being caught in the spin-cycle of the waves. Photo by Robby Kohley

While watching the young albatrosses it is hard not to feel empathy for their situation as they struggle in the waves, crash land while practicing to fly, or stand on shore staring out to sea over the breaking waves and tiger sharks, toward the horizon knowing their future is that way, with no idea what to expect.

It is easy for a person to identify a time in their life when they were in comparable circumstances, when maybe you faltered while learning, failed because you weren’t prepared, or faced a big change or decision in your life with no idea what the future may hold.

Photo 6 Young albatross headed north (Robby Kohley)

A young Laysan Albatross overcomes the odds and heads for the far North Pacific. Photo by Robby Kohley

This is why when you see a young albatross overcome it all and disappear over the horizon, it is hard not to crack a smile, wish him well—and want to warn him of the perils of fishhooks and floating plastic that await him.

Robby KohleyRobby Kohley has worked on conservation projects throughout the Hawaiian Islands since 2007, most recently for the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project on their efforts to protect the endangered Akikiki and Akeke’e. While on Laysan he hopes to capture photos of fledgling albatross and furtive Millerbirds. On his off-time, he enjoys killing black flies, stashing candy bars and sun bathing.

Fresh Meat for Flies: First Impressions of Laysan Island

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Millerbirds were first reintroduced to Laysan Island in 2011. This is a great conservation success story: the population has now at least doubled in size. Photo: C.R. Kohley

July 7, 2014 | By Barbara Heindl

It has been a week since I arrived on Laysan Island with fellow field biologists Megan Dalton and Robby Kohley. We have been sent to Laysan, a small island in the Northwest Hawaiian chain about 930 miles northwest from Honolulu, to monitor a population of translocated Millerbirds. The last time anyone checked on the Millerbirds was in September 2013, when Megan, Michelle Wilcox, and Andrea Kristof departed.

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The Millerbird monitoring team on Laysan (left to right): Megan Dalton, Barbara Heindl, and Robby Kohley. Laysan Albatrosses are also seen in the background. Photo by Barbara Heindl

In 2011 and 2012, a total of 50 individual Millerbirds were brought from Nihoa Island to Laysan Island, where Millerbirds had been extinct on the island for almost 100 years. The original Laysan Millerbird population went extinct because of habitat degradation caused by introduced, non-native rabbits. Once the rabbits were eradicated, and decades of habitat restoration completed by USFWS Refuges, the Millerbirds were translocated.

Life in the Field: Adaptation

When you start a new field job there is always a transition period. The period of time where everything is new, your assumptions about the location and experience are either met or modified. You develop a flow with your new co-workers who are also the people you will be living with for the next several months. You are forced to compare all your new experiences to your old ones and for the most part, maybe more than anything else, are trying to cope with how to take in everything, new guidelines, new living quarters, new background noises, everything.

I am not sure whether this experience has been eased or complicated by my working almost exclusively on Kaua‘i, the closest (~800 mi) inhabited island in the main Hawaiian chain, for the last five years.

On “Gilligan’s Island”

Figure 2. The sun sets on this tour of Laysan Island, only to rise again in early 2013 (Photo by Michelle Wilcox)

The ocean is always in view on Laysan Island. Photo by Michelle Wilcox

Everything on Laysan is still part of Hawai‘i, but at the same time different from the Hawai‘i I have previously experienced. It is undeniably closer to what my family and friends from the mainland visualize. An ocean view backdrops every image I lay my eyes on. Gilligan’s Island is a close approximation, and the coconut wireless is real, though no one has managed to engineer an FM/AM coconut radio yet. But otherwise it is a stark contrast from the work I have been doing for the past 5 years.

Working for the Kaua‘i Forest Bird Recovery Project, my “office” was the Alaka‘i Swamp in montane rainforest at the uppermost elevations of Kaua‘i. The Alaka‘i is a tangled jungle-gym of forest where, while you may see rainbows at the end of the day, it is likely because you have just endured or are still sitting in a torrential downpour. Working there you are constantly tripped by vines and low branches, and often fight to get through dense woven masses of ‘ohe naupaka or shrub ‘ōhi‘a, a task that requires not only the patience of a saint but also the zen-like resolve of a monk.

Bird Detection in NIMI Land

On Laysan, in what is fondly referred to as “NIMI land” (NIMI being the field code for Nihoa Millerbird), I have traded in that familiar tangled mess of twisted shrub ‘ōhi‘a for tangled beach naupaka (a native coastal shrub). The main difference being that beneath the matted naupaka are countless nesting Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, Red-tailed Tropicbirds, Brown Noddies and, of course, Nihoa Millerbirds. All of which makes every step an exercise in decision-making and a lesson on the effects of one’s footsteps on an environment not made for humans.

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A screaming Great Frigatebird chick in its nest in the naupaka on Laysan. Photo by Barbara Heindl

Detecting Millerbirds is far more difficult then I initially expected. I am used to detecting birds, in most situations by sound first, and usually I am able to narrow the location down and get visual confirmation shortly thereafter. While the Millerbird song and calls are distinct, they are fragile and can be hard to pick out through the deafening din of Great Frigatebird and Red-footed Booby nestlings begging for food. Sooty Terns and Noddies swooping above you don’t help either while you are trying to focus on the mouse-sized Millerbirds secretively hopping around the underbrush.

Nihoa Millerbird Fledgling on Laysan photo by Robby Kohley -ABC

Fledgling Millerbird in a typical secretive pose. Photo: C.R. Kohley

On Kaua’i a “busy” bird survey might become more difficult if you are flanked by a single upset Kaua‘i ‘Elepaio or a chatty Japanese White-eye, both of which might make detecting the ever-decreasing ‘Akikiki or ‘Akeke‘e difficult. These distractions are nowhere near the cacophonous sound of upset seabirds and hoards of flies buzzing in your ears, eyes, and nose. Even keeping in mind that the Millerbird is only one of two songbirds on the island, the social and consistent melody of the Laysan Finch can easily cover and mask a nearby Millerbird’s gentle “chk chk” call as well.

Toward a Future with Many Millerbirds

I have been repeatedly amazed and so thankful to be joined in the field with Millerbird veterans Robby and Megan. They both have been involved at critical stages of the Nihoa Millerbird project, including the two translocations and the transition to monitoring the growth and success of the new population.

Their skill and proficiency in this environment is not only impressive, but has also been a valuable resource for me in learning the ropes during our first week on the island. They can detect the light song of a Millerbird tens of meters away, when all I hear are the primordial shrieks of Frigatebirds directly above us.

The Millerbird "Black over Silver, Blue over Orange" perched in the native bunch grass Eragrostis variabilis on Laysan. Photo: C.R. Kohley

Millerbird known as “Black over Silver, Blue over Orange” for the colors of its bands, perched in a native bunch grass on Laysan. Photo: C.R. Kohley

The few interactions I’ve had with Millerbirds so far have been deeply rewarding, all thanks to these two seasoned biologists. I’m looking forward to seeing what the next three months bring, especially as I start to get my feet under me in the field, both figuratively and metaphorically. Whatever the future brings, here’s to hoping there are lots of Millerbirds in it!

Editor’s Note: ABC helped translocate the Millerbirds to Laysan from their last remaining habitat on Nihoa Island during 2011-2012 and continues to support the project. A “founder population” of the birds more than doubled its original population of 50 birds to 121 in 2013, offering increased promise for the species’ future.

Barbara Heindl is a field biologist on Laysan Island monitoring translocated Nihoa Millerbirds. She has also done extensive work on Kaua‘i, Hawai’i, Alaska, and across the United States’ mainland. She is originally from Wisconsin and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Madison.