Isla Santa Clara: Restoring Habitat for Pink-footed Shearwater

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A glimpse of the rare Pink-footed Shearwater, which nests only on Isla Santa Clara and two other Chilean islands. Photo by Peter Hodum

By Holly Freifeld

The zodiac’s bow smacked the choppy water hard on the approach to the little island’s landing site: a slippery, wave-washed tongue of rock. We each steeled ourselves for the scramble over the gunwale and onto the rocks in that unpredictable split-second when the boat, the water, and the shore all lined up.  Crumbling basalt cliffs soared on either side, and the summer sun was scorching.

Some devoted readers of the ABC blog may predict that this is Nihoa in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, home of endemic Millerbirds, Nihoa Finches, and a half-million or so seabirds, but no.  This is a less fortunate sister in the Southern Hemisphere: Isla Santa Clara, in Chile’s Juan Fernandez Archipelago.

Opening figure (left) Santa Clara

Isla Santa Clara, in Chile’s Juan Fernandez Islands (33°S latitude; about 2.2 km2). Photo by Holly Freifeld

Opening figure (right) Nihoa

Nihoa, in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (23°N latitude; about 1 km2). Both Nihoa and Santa Clara are oceanic islands made of basalt (fragments of ancient volcanoes). Photo by Holly Freifeld

Gazing up past the eerily familiar cliffs, I sought the cloud of seabirds that whirls and floats above Nihoa and most of the other remote, uninhabited Pacific Islands I have visited.  The sky was empty. The arid slopes were covered not with a mix of native shrubs, but a near-uniform golden blanket of what I would soon discover to be wild oats, Avena barbata, an alien invasive grass we all know from every walk in an American cow pasture.

Instead of carefully negotiating space with an endangered Hawaiian monk seal or two, landing on Santa Clara involves scattering dozens of Juan Fernandez fur seals, which in stark contrast with the monk seal, are enjoying a population boom in the archipelago, their only home.

Fig 1 (left) Santa Clara landing

Santa Clara landing with Juan Fernandez fur seals.

Fig 1 (right) Nihoa landing

Nihoa landing. A handful of Hawaiian monk seals typically would be loafing on the rocks. Photos by Holly Freifeld

They’re also far more fearful of humans than monk seals. As our boat nudged the rocks and one by one we variously leapt, hopped, slid, and fell onto shore, fur seals of all sizes did the same, into the water.  Once we were ashore, the boat nosed cautiously back several times so that the crew (park guards with Chile’s Corporación Nacional Forestal, or CONAF) could quickly pass our gear across. As they waved good-bye and turned back toward the mile-wide channel that separates Santa Clara from Robinson Crusoe, we formed a fire-bucket brigade and ferried our gear across the rocky terrace and up to CONAF’s cabin on a small flat shoulder maybe 130 feet above the sea.

For the next three days, Peter Hodum and Valentina Colodro of Oikonos Ecosystems Knowledge, Hector Gutierrez of Rescatemos Juan Fernandez (a local conservation group dedicated to control of invasive plants), and I would hike over the island and I would see for the first time nesting colonies of the Pink-footed Shearwater, known locally as Fardela Blanca, a seabird that Peter has been studying in the Juan Fernandez Islands for 14 years.

With funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and others, ABC has been working with Oikonos since 2009 on a variety of conservation projects for this globally threatened seabird, which nests only on Santa Clara and two other Chilean islands: Robinson Crusoe, just across the channel, and Mocha, a coastal island some 400 miles to the southeast. Here on Santa Clara, the shearwaters nest in two or three well-defined colonies as well as in burrows scattered thinly around the island. Our job on this trip was to select and mark a subset of burrows in two colonies for monitoring through the breeding season.

Similar Islands, Different Histories

The non-native mammals (including humans) that prey on Pink-footed Shearwaters and munch on and trample their habitat on Mocha and Robinson Crusoe are absent from Santa Clara.  The island once had feral sheep and rabbits, but these were removed by CONAF in 2000 and 2003, respectively. Although some of the island’s native plants, including the strange and lovely cabbage tree, Dendroseris litoralis, have crept back in places around the island’s margins since the last rabbits were removed, the damage wrought by herbivorous mammals – severe erosion and the near-complete loss of native vegetation – is still plain to see, and will require many years of hands-on restoration work to reverse.

Fig 2 (left) Dendroseris

Cabbage tree on Santa Clara. The small “forest” of these shrubs in the background on the left is an example of the modest natural regeneration of native plants around the edges of Santa Clara since rabbits were removed.

Fig 2 (right) Dendroseris detail

Cabbage tree in bloom. Photos by Holly Freifeld

Santa Clara’s climate is relatively arid, like Nihoa’s, and the island’s native vegetative may once have been similar to Nihoa’s as well: a combination of shrubs, native bunch grasses and ferns, and perhaps small trees in ravines. Today the wild oats dominate the island (perhaps carried there in the guts of the sheep), as well as thistles, mustards, dock, and other weeds. These non-native plants, all of continental origin, evolved together with mammalian herbivores and thus can survive in the presence of heavy grazing and browsing, and under conditions of increasing erosion and decreasing soil nutrients. The natives, for the most part, cannot.

The result, for the shearwaters, is dry, friable soil lacking the network of substantial roots that formerly provided structural integrity for their burrows through wet and dry seasons. Lacking stability, many burrows collapse.  Peter estimates that Santa Clara now harbors about 3,500 breeding pairs of Pink-footed Shearwaters. The degradation of the vegetation and substrate probably has severely reduced the Pink-footed Shearwater population on the Santa Clara; they likely once nested all over the island. Santa Clara does have a few other species of nesting seabirds, but these are not reliant on excavating burrows.  Approximately 325 pairs of DeFilippi’s Petrels nest in scree slopes or other rocky crevices on Santa Clara, along with a few Kermadec Petrels and White-bellied Storm-Petrels.

fig 3 (left) Santa Clara veg

The landscape of Santa Clara is dominated by wild oats (Avena barbata), an alien invasive grass. The sheep, and rabbits, are gone, and the grass is thriving.

Fig 3 (right) Nihoa veg

Nihoa’s vegetation is nearly all native shrubs and bunch grasses. Photos by Holly Freifeld

In contrast, Nihoa, which is less than half the size of Santa Clara, is home to probably 100,000 seabirds or more representing 16 species, including burrow- and crevice-nesters such as Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, Christmas Shearwaters, Bulwer Petrels, and Tristram’s Storm-Petrels. Granted, biogeography, not human impacts, explains a lot of the difference in the number of seabird species between the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and Juan Fernandez. Too, Nihoa’s topography is so extreme that soil development is patchy, and “traditional” burrow-excavators like Wedge-tailed Shearwaters nest mainly in rock crevices and small caves. The point, though, is the difference in the number of individual seabirds. Nihoa is covered with birds, as a rocky, oceanic island free of alien mammals should be. Santa Clara is by comparison woefully, echoingly, empty.

Restoration

Restoring native vegetation, and thus nesting habitat for Pink-footed Shearwaters, is the goal of ABC’s work with Oikonos and CONAF on Santa Clara.  The near-term objective is to establish native plants, rather than thistles and other alien species, in the two largest and most accessible concentrations of shearwater burrows on the island.

This is not a simple matter: getting to, and staying on, Santa Clara isn’t easy or inexpensive, and little infrastructure currently exists on the island to support propagation and care of newly planted vegetation. The work underway now seeks to identify the most efficient methods, requiring the least time and technology, for reaching this objective.

I hiked Santa Clara with Peter, Vale, and Hector, alternately awestruck by the gorgeous, sweeping landscapes, and dismayed by the near-wholesale alteration of the island. Peter tells me that Isla Selkirk, the third of the Juan Fernandez Islands, is loaded with birds: hundreds of thousands of Juan Fernandez Petrels and Stejneger’s Petrels. Selkirk also still has a fair amount of native vegetation, despite its small population of feral goats. Isla Mocha, the stronghold of the Pink-footed Shearwater breeding population, also has quite a bit of native forest.

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Pink-footed Shearwaters on Santa Clara. Photo by Peter Hodum

The link between vegetation and seabirds can be critical on breeding islands.  Native plants often provide essential structure, above and below ground, for nesting seabirds. That link has been weakened for Pink-footed Shearwaters on Santa Clara. With time, patience, and a lot of hard, hands-on work–propagation, planting, irrigation, and other support–habitat for this seabird can be restored, a bit at a time.

HFreifeld on Searcher  7Sep11_GWallaceHolly Freifeld has managed ABC’s Seabird Program since 2012, following 10 years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service focused on conservation of Hawaiian birds and Pacific seabirds. Prior to joining FWS, Holly participated in the study and conservation of island birds in American Samoa, Independent Samoa, Tonga, Palau, and California as well as in Hawaii. She holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Oregon.

 

 

 

Help Save Wood Thrush: Drink Bird Friendly Coffee

Wood Thrush singing. In 1853, Henry David Thoreau wrote of the Wood Thrush: “This is the only bird whose note affects me like music. It lifts and exhilarates me. It is inspiring. It changes all hours to an eternal morning.” Photo by Lang Elliot

By Bridget Stutchbury

The Wood Thrush is an ambassador for the forest birds of eastern North America, and a modern-day “canary in the coal mine.” According to the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), this species has declined by over 50 percent since systematic counts began in the late 1960s.

The number of Wood Thrushes found during Breeding Bird Surveys has dropped by about 50 percent since the 1960s.

I wrote about the demise of the Wood Thrush in Silence of the Songbirds, and since then I have received dozens of comments from readers about the emotional loss they feel when the Wood Thrush disappears from their neighborhood. Wood Thrushes are rarely seen, but their flute-like song is bold, beautiful, and full of  life. Summer evenings used to bring a refreshing and ringing dusk chorus of “ee-oh-lay” from thrushes in the forest by their house, but now several years have gone by with none at all. Each spring brings new but diminishing hope.

Listen to the Wood Thrush’s song:
(Andrew Spencer, XC33467. Accessible at xeno-canto.org.)

What can be done to bring their beloved thrushes back?  My answer is to drink Bird Friendly® coffee (which is organic, fair trade, and shade grown) to help give Wood Thrushes a safe place to spend their winter when they are thousands of miles from our back yards.

Tracking Birds with Tiny Backpacks

Where exactly do our Wood Thrushes go after they are finished breeding? To find out, I have used newly miniaturized tracking devices called “geolocators,” which the birds carry as a little backpack and which must be retrieved and downloaded when the bird returns to its breeding site the next year. The geolocator measures light levels every few minutes, and then sunrise and sunset times can be converted into latitude and longitude.

Geolocators are “light loggers” and use sunrise and sunset times to determine a bird’s location. Photo by Bridget Stutchbury.

In May 2008, my graduate students caught the very first Wood Thrush to be tracked for its entire migration. At the same time that this forest in northern Pennsylvania had been buried under 18 inches of fresh lake effect snow, “our” Wood Thrush was in Nicaragua and completely at home in a world of strangler figs, howler monkeys, and toucans. I was stunned to see that in spring this bird had flown 2,300 miles in only two weeks.

Most Wood Thrushes from the central- and north-eastern part of the breeding range winter in eastern Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Source: Stutchbury et al. (2009) Science 323: 896.

Of the five Wood Thrushes tracked that first year, all spent our winter living in eastern Honduras and Nicaragua. This was not just a coincidence. We have now tracked over 70 Wood Thrushes that bred in the central-east or north-east part of the breeding range, and the vast majority also wintered in eastern Honduras, Nicaragua, or western Costa Rica.

Wood Thrush with Geolocator by Elizabeth Gow

Wood Thrush wearing a small geolocator tracking device on his back. Photo by Elizabeth Gow.

This part of Central America is a Wood Thrush hotspot, but the tragedy is that it is also a deforestation hotspot and is losing its tropical forests at one of the highest rates in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization 2011 State of the World’s Forests report, since 1990 Honduras has lost 27 percent of its forest, and Nicaragua 31 percent, to agriculture. It should come as no surprise, then, that Wood Thrushes who depend on those forests are disappearing quickly. The scale of our assault on this endearing forest icon is enormous; the North American population size of Wood Thrushes has dropped by about 12 million birds since the 1960s.

The Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources in Nicaragua maps of forest loss show the extreme level of deforestation in the recent past, and for the coming decades.

You Can Help: Go Bird Friendly

Bird Friendly shade coffee farms are high-quality forested habitat for dozens of species of migratory songbirds, as well as tropical birds that there live year round.  In the village of San Juan del Río Coco, Nicaragua, a cooperative of more than 400 small coffee producers raise more than 2.5 million pounds of Bird Friendly certified coffee every year. This one co-op adds up to about 8,000 acres, a green oasis that is surrounding by miles of deforested land devoted to pasture, sun coffee, and other crops.  Saving heavily shaded coffee farms throughout this region would protect tens of thousands of acres of habitat for Wood Thrush. But farmers need your help.

As Jefferson Shriver’s blog post illustrates, small and medium-size coffee farmers gain many ecological and economic benefits from keeping a multi-layered and diverse set of tree species on their farm. Recent studies have shown that birds can directly benefit farmers by controlling insect pests and increasing coffee production.

What is missing is large-scale support and commitment from the millions of coffee drinkers in America.  Too many birders are not aware of the benefits of shade coffee to birds and farmers, or do not realize how easy it is to buy Bird Friendly shade coffee and help the birds they love.

What can you do to make sure that our Wood Thrushes and other forest songbirds remain common and serenade future generations for years to come? Drink Bird Friendly coffee!

Photo by Douglas Morton

Bridget Stutchbury is a professor at York University, Toronto. Since the 1980s, she has followed songbirds to their wintering grounds in Latin America and back to their breeding grounds in North America to understand their behavior, ecology and conservation. Bridget is author of Silence of the Songbirds (2007) and The Private Lives of Birds (2010).

Editor’s Note: At American Bird Conservancy, we’re drinking Birds and Beans coffee. The quality is superior, and since we’re all about conserving birds, nothing less will do! We find it easy to order: Just set up a recurring subscription and you’ll never have to worry about where to get coffee again. We encourage you to give it a try.

 

Unexpected Dividends: Migratory Sandpipers in a Bolivian Reserve

A Buff-breasted Sandpiper foraging in the grasslands at Barba Azul, which is an important stopover site for these migrant shorebirds. Photo by Ed Schneider.

By John Nielsen

First and last, save habitat. If you had to pick a single rule for bird conservation groups to follow that would probably be it. Nobody ever looks back and says, “I wish we had saved less bird habitat,” for one thing. For another, the rewards for preserving these wild places can be greater than expected.

As a case in point, take the land deals that created Bolivia’s wondrous Barba Azul Nature Reserve in 2008, and then doubled its size in 2012. Asociación Armonía, a Bolivian conservation group and longstanding partner of American Bird Conservancy, made those acquisitions with help from ABC, Rainforest Trust, and a host of other groups.

Both acquisitions have been hailed as godsends for one bird in particular: the Critically Endangered Blue-throated Macaw from which Barba Azul (or in English, “blue beard”) got its name.

The critically endangered Blue-throated Macaw occurs only at the Barba Azul reserve. Photo by Paul B. Jones

The critically endangered Blue-throated Macaw occurs only at the Barba Azul reserve. Photo by Paul B. Jones

Other Rare Animals Conserved

People who read news reports about the creation of Barba Azul may remember seeing references to other rare creatures found in the reserve —everything from maned wolves, pumas, and jaguars to a wide range of declining native birds, including Greater Rhea, Long-tailed Reed Finch, and Streamer-tailed Tyrant.

One bird that was barely mentioned in the early news reports was the Buff-breasted Sandpiper, a long-distance migrant that breeds in the Arctic and winters in Argentina. Bennett Hennessey, Director of Asociación Armonía, said the reason for that was simple: when Barba Azul was created in 2008, researchers rarely visited the area during the rainy season, which is when the “buffies” are around. “At the time it was assumed that Buff-breasted Sandpipers rarely stopped here while migrating south to Argentina,” Hennessey said. “Basically, because we did not know that they were out there we did not go looking for them.”

Accidental Sightings

Hennessey says he got his first inkling that more than few Buff-breasted Sandpipers were stopping in these grasslands in the fall of 2008, when he and a colleague were surveying the then-private ranchlands that became Barba Azul. “We were driving through a wetland area when the vehicle got so badly stuck that somebody had to drive a tractor to the site and pull the vehicle up onto firm ground, which took several hours. While waiting for the tractor to arrive I went bird watching, and saw an unexpectedly large group of Buff-breasted Sandpipers foraging in a dried-up lagoon.” Hennessey saw more foraging buffies while bird watching with his son a few weeks later. “These observations suggested that the Beni grasslands of Barba Azul could be an important stop-over site for Buff-breasted Sandpipers in particular and boreal migrant shorebirds in general,” he said. “We took that idea to Gary Donaldson of the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS), which funded a study of the migratory shorebirds that use Bolivia’s tropical grasslands as wintering grounds or stopover sites.”

The Rio Omi winds through the flooded grasslands and palm islands that make up the Barba Azul Reserve. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik, ABC.

The Rio Omi winds through the flooded grasslands and palm islands that make up the Barba Azul Reserve. Photo by Benjamin Skolnik, ABC.

That research, begun in 2009, continues today. “In that time, we’ve learned that Buff-breasted Sandpipers are very common in the fall in Barba Azul,” said Hennessey. “They arrive here weak and hungry after crossing roughly 1,000 miles worth of largely inhospitable forests of Amazon basin. They rest, they eat, they build up weight and strength, and then they leave, finishing their long journey south to pampas grasslands in Argentina.”

First and last, save habitat. It’s always a good idea and there’s no better way to save the treasures that have not yet been discovered.

John NielsenJohn Nielsen is Senior Writer/Editor at ABC and a former Environment Correspondent at National Public Radio. In 2006 his book Condor/To the Brink and Back/The Life and Times of One Giant Bird won the National Outdoor Book Award for Natural History Literature.

 

Does Bird Friendly Coffee Matter? A Farmer’s Perspective

Chestnut-sided Warbler, one of many migratory species that overwinters on Central American shade coffee farms. Photo by Greg Lavaty.

By Jefferson Shriver

“Bird Friendly®” coffee’s very name makes it obvious that there are clear benefits for the birds and bird habitat. At Gaia Estate—a medium-sized family farm in Nicaragua that my wife and I own—we grow Bird Friendly coffee, and the birds are plentiful.

In addition to year-round residents like Turquoise-browed Motmot and Collared Aracari, we see many migrants. Baltimore Orioles, Summer Tanagers, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, and Yellow and Chestnut-sided warblers are just a few of the birds we welcome back each year. In fact, upward of 125 species of birds have been observed on the farm.

But how about the farmer?  Is there a clear business and livelihood case for farmers to adopt the Bird Friendly farming approach?

entrance gate gaia

Entrance to Gaia Estate, a family farm in Nicaragua where Bird Friendly coffee is grown. Photo courtesy Jefferson Shriver.

A Century of Traditional Farming

At Gaia Estate, coffee has been grown in a “three-story” shade system for over 130 years. Here, the underbrush of a forest was cleared and most of the trees kept, leaving more than 70 species of trees in place and a very tall canopy.

Growing coffee in a shaded, agroforestry system like this used to be the norm in Nicaragua and in most of the country.  The broader landscape was a tapestry of rustic shade-grown coffee farms very similar to what we have at Gaia today.  Varieties of Arabica coffee such as Bourbon and Tipica, which were originally found in the forests and love the shade, were grown for a consistent cash income.

But coffee was never the whole story. Farmers also intercropped hardwoods, fruit trees, and semi-perennial crops such as bananas, roots, and tubers that provided them with food, fodder, and lumber when they needed it.  They also knew that a three-story shade system would provide a blanket of leaf litter and root systems to protect their soil from erosion and lock in moisture during dry periods; that it would provide wind and rain breaks to shield coffee from extreme weather; and that it would keep the water springs and streams running through their farms vibrant and clean.

A Walk in the Forest

Despite a changing rural landscape and coffee industry, we continue to conserve this tradition today at Gaia. Our tangerine harvest comes in March, avocados in June, and limes, coconuts, and banana harvests year-round. Organically raised chickens run amuck on the farm and provide a weekly supply of eggs, and fallen trees provide lumber for construction. We grow cinnamon, clove, guava, soursop, wild-grown chile pepper, and cilantro—all amidst the coffee. Vanilla, a shade-loving climbing orchid that winds its way up and around trees, is on its way to becoming a primary new cash crop on the farm.

vanilla at Gaia

Vanilla, a shade-loving climbing orchid, is a new cash crop on the farm. Photo by Jefferson Shriver.

We selectively hand weed instead of using herbicides, leaving a new generation of tree seedlings spread by bats and birds to grow and eventually replace the elder giants. Instead of highly toxic pesticides, we use certain species of trees and plants on the farm to combat pests.  We use manures, coffee residues, and nitrogen-fixing, leaf-shedding trees instead of synthetic fertilizers to keep our top soil healthy and crops fertilized.  The permanent and temporary farm workers we employ at different times of the year enjoy a shaded, toxin-free environment.

Time and again, those who visit Gaia consider their experience to be more of a walk in a forest than a farm, and always comment about the high volume of butterflies, ants, and lizards they see compared to other farms, to say nothing of the birds.

Buffer against Changing Conditions

Bird Friendly production systems are also a major buffer to one of the most serious threats coffee farmers have ever faced: changing growing conditions. Arabica coffee is a rain-fed crop and extremely sensitive to just the right kind of growing conditions: consistently cool average temperatures (particularly night temperatures), plenty of rain that is distributed fairly evenly (no extended drought), no extreme winds, and the right shade-to-sun ratio.

Sadly, the planet is not providing these types of conditions for farmers the way it used to. As an agriculture advisor in the developing world for the past 16 years, I have had countless conversations with coffee farmers living along the equator.

What they are experiencing, similar to what we are seeing at Gaia, are longer dry seasons, stronger winds, stronger rains, unpredictable rainy seasons, and warmer average temperatures. These factors are causing flowering to become irregular and pests and diseases to migrate. Plantations are dying or barely productive. When the weather changes like this, coffee becomes more difficult to grow and is less viable to a farmer.

Turquoise-browed Motmot_Luke Seitz_U

Turquoise-browed Motmot, one of many resident birds on Gaia Estate. Photo by Luke Seitz.

Counting More than Beans

Today there are powerful voices and economic forces in most coffee-producing countries that promote a chemically intensive, shadeless, monocrop system with the promise of higher yields per hectare. I will be the first one to say that over the short term, these systems will out-produce the traditional shade grown system if it is only beans we are counting.

But if we look at benefits beyond coffee yield to include the multiple outputs of a shade-grown, intercropped system, the Bird Friendly alternative remains an attractive one to small- and medium-sized farmers. Finding a price premium for their coffee in a Bird Friendly-certified market provides a true tipping point to maintain these systems over the long term.

We sought Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Bird Friendly certification in 2010 in search of some market recognition for this farming approach. We were fortunate to find that in Birds & Beans. However, the market for Bird Friendly coffee is in sore need of expansion if other farmers stand to benefit at significant scale.

Bird Friendly farming is a story of synergistic relationships, of diversity, a celebration of life in its many forms in an agro-ecological system.  It is also the best natural insurance policy against changing growing conditions (aka climate change) available to farmers today.

I suppose we could grow coffee in the sun, all lonesome and by itself, but why on earth would we? We would like to keep those 125 species (and counting) of birds around too.

Jefferson ShriverJefferson Shriver is co-owner of Gaia Estate. He has lived in Nicaragua for over 16 years. See a video by Birds & Beans featuring Gaia Estate here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wirnRx-zlNk

Editor’s Note: Want to help? It’s easy to purchase Bird Friendly coffee from a company such as Birds & Beans. For other ways to help migratory birds, consider becoming a member of the Western Hemisphere’s bird conservation specialist: American Bird Conservancy

SNAP! How I Photographed 585 Species in One Year to Benefit Hawaiian Birds

Whiskered Screech-Owl, one of the 585 bird species David Pavlik captured on film during his 2013 big year. (All photos in this post by David Pavlik.)

Whiskered Screech-Owl, one of the 585 bird species David Pavlik photographed during his 2013 “big year.” (All photos in this post by David Pavlik.)

By David Pavlik, graduate student in Conservation Biology, University of Minnesota

Wow, what a year. From Northern Hawk Owl to Great Kiskadee, my 2013 “photographic big year”—focused on raising funds for ABC to help out Hawai’i’s endangered bird species—exceeded expectations in every way thanks to so many bird enthusiasts, and maybe including some of you!

Back at the beginning of 2013, I made a plan to travel a lot, taking photos of different species of birds. I asked potential supporters to consider donating either a flat amount for the year-long campaign or a set amount for each species of bird that I photographed.

My target was to photograph 500 distinct species—and I am pleased to announce that I exceeded that goal. The final tally was 585 different species photographed and a whopping chunk of change to help out the birds: almost $6,000!

I initially thought that I might get a few pledges from some close friends, and maybe a few more from conservation-minded birders. As the year went on, it quickly became obvious that there was much more support for this type of project than I thought. ABC promoted the project in newsletters and on Facebook; articles were written in local newspapers; and eBird supported the project with an article on their home page.

Elegant Trogon, a sought-after species photographed in southeastern Arizona.

Elegant Trogon, a sought-after species photographed in southeastern Arizona.

Following all that help, the pledges started rolling in, and my big year was on its way to becoming a success.

Zig-Zag Route from Michigan to California

My big year started in Michigan. Winter birding in Michigan can be tough, but I made a trip to the Upper Peninsula where I photographed some great birds including Northern Hawk Owl, Snowy Owl, Sharp-tailed Grouse, and Hoary Redpoll.

At the end of January, I headed south to Florida for my job working with Brown-headed Nuthatches at Tall Timbers Research Station. I left a week early and birded from northern Florida down to the Everglades, then back up to the Panhandle. This was a tremendously successful week and I picked up some great birds including Western Spindalis and La Sagra’s Flycatcher. Sticking around Florida until early May meant I hit peak migration in the Panhandle and, before returning to Michigan, I had already photographed 300 species of birds.

Green-tailed Towhee, a colorful resident of Western sagebrush and shrub habitats.

Green-tailed Towhee, a colorful resident of western sagebrush and shrub habitats.

After Florida, I had a few free weeks before I needed to head out west for my summer field job. I used my frequent flyer miles to catch a flight to Alaska to attend the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, where I photographed some tough-to-find species including Yellow-billed Loon, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Arctic Tern, Marbled and Kittlitz’s  murrelets, Pacific Golden-Plover, Eurasian Wigeon, and Aleutian Tern.

The rest of my summer was spent in the Great Basin of Nevada and California conducting butterfly surveys. My friend and fellow Michigan birder Kevin Welsh and I drove to Nevada, making a small detour to southeast Arizona. We saw most of the Arizona specialties including Montezuma Quail, Mexican Chickadee, Scott’s Oriole, and Elf Owl.

Best of the Big Year: Hawaiian Petrel

Of course, while in the Great Basin, I paid attention to the birds (not just butterflies) and spent my free days chasing birds all over California.  I even managed to get on two pelagic trips. The highlight of my year came on a trip out of Monterey Bay with Shearwater Journeys, where we saw a Hawaiian Petrel! This endangered Hawaiian species is extremely rare off the California coast and was a life bird for just about everyone on board.

The rare Hawaiian Petrel, photographed off the coast of California—the highlight of the year.

The rare Hawaiian Petrel off the coast of California—the highlight of the year.

Next, I talked myself into making a long drive over to the Ruby Mountains in Nevada. This was another successful trip, where I found two Himalayan Snowcock, many Black Rosy-Finches with young, Dusky Grouse, and Ferruginous Hawk.  At this point, I had already passed my goal of 500 birds and still had big plans for the rest of the year.

Ending with a Bang in the Rio Grande

It was mid-August by the time my job ended and it was nearly time to start grad school at the University of Minnesota. Luckily, there were still plenty of common birds for me to photograph during fall migration in Minnesota. I picked up new birds in Duluth, Minneapolis, and at Sax-Zim Bog, including Winter Wren, Northern Goshawk, Great Grey Owl, and Philadelphia Vireo.

Great Grey Owl, North America’s largest owl species. This photo was taken at Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota.

Great Grey Owl, North America’s largest owl species. This photo was taken at Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota.

With the year winding down, along with my first semester of grad school, I booked a flight to south Texas. What better way to end the year than with a winter trip to the Rio Grande Valley? I spent four days birding with my friend Mike Lester and we did really well, picking up Muscovy Duck, Tropical Parula, and many South Texas specialties like Green Jay, Great Kiskadee, Common Pauraque, and Audubon’s Oriole.

Ongoing Inspiration, An Invitation

In addition to thanking all the individual supporters, ABC, and eBird, I also want to thank Debi Shearwater of Shearwater Journeys for donating  the pelagic trip out of Monterey Bay, where the photograph of a Hawaiian Petrel became the highlight of my year.

This project has inspired me to continue raising money for conservation. If anyone is interested in buying a high-quality, matted print of any of the pictures taken on my photographic big year, I’ll donate a portion of all profits to ABC to support even more Hawaiian bird conservation. (Did you know that Hawai’i is the bird extinction capital of the United States?) Prints won’t be available for all photos due to image quality, but contact me at dtpavlik@hotmail.com and I’ll see what I can do.

I was incredibly fortunate to visit many great birding spots and had some good friends to keep me going throughout the year. And of course, this project certainly wouldn’t have been possible without the wonderful conservation-minded supporters who donated to this cause. Thanks to all!

David Pavlik graduated from Northern Michigan University with a degree in zoology. He has done bird research in Florida, Arizona, California, Nevada, Wyoming, Michigan, and Alaska. He is now a first-year graduate student in the Conservation Biology program at the University of Minnesota.

White-out on the White Mountain: Restoring Forests on Mauna Kea

Hawai'i's not all white sands and beaches. This snow-covered truck awaited our freezing field crew on Mauna Kea. Photo by Robert Stevens

Hawai’i’s not all white sands and beaches. This snow-covered truck awaited our freezing field crew on Mauna Kea. Photo by Robert Stephens

By Robert Stephens, Project Coordinator, Mauna Kea Forest Restoration Project

January 28, 2014, 7 a.m., Hilo, Hawai’i: As the field crew of the Mauna Kea Forest Restoration Project (MKFRP) drove up the rough dirt roads in the Mauna Kea Forest Reserve and parked on Skyline Road—10,300 feet high on the flanks of the dormant volcano—the conditions were dry. But the building clouds had an imposing darkness. The weather reminded Cheyanne Rapoza, Field Crew Leader, of a snowstorm that delayed the annual Palila surveys in 2011.

The goal for the six field staff that day was to split into two groups of three, with each group surveying two of the four final vegetation plots selected from a sample of 60. These surveys would assess current forest conditions and help serve as a baseline for habitat recovery for the Palila—last of the 16 “finch-billed” honeycreepers that used to occur in the main Hawaiian Islands.

Field staff in a snow storm on Mauna Kea, 2011. Left to right: Chris Farmer, ABC; Paul Banko-USGS; Cheyanne Rapoza-MKFRP; and Ku'ulei Vickery-MKFRP. Photo by Robert Stevens

Field staff in a snow storm on Mauna Kea, 2011. Left to right: Chris Farmer, ABC; Paul Banko-USGS; Cheyanne Rapoza-MKFRP; and Ku’ulei Vickery-MKFRP. Photo by Robert Stephens

Unfortunately, Cheyanne’s intuition was correct. At the first survey plot, a light but cold rain began to fall. What started out as just wet and cold hands (especially if you were holding the metal clipboard!) progressed to a numbness that crept toward their body cores over the three hours spent working in the constant rain fall. By the time Cheyenne’s crew was halfway finished surveying their second plot, they had decided to take refuge from the cold, wet conditions.

Snow in Hawai’i?

Thirty minutes into the arduous 1.5 hour slog back uphill to the truck, the rain turned to a heavy snowfall, coming down sideways due to the gusty winds on the mountain. Nearly two inches of snow had accumulated on the truck by the time the shivering surveyors reached it. The crew cranked the heater to high as they descended from snowy Mauna Kea back to sea level and a warm 70 degrees F in Hilo. Along the way they picked up the other crew, who had completed their two transects and were also soaked and ready to retreat from the weather

Think about it … snow in Hawai’i?! This event reminds us how special Mauna Kea is. Mauna Kea means the “white mountain” in Hawaiian because of its snow-covered peaks. It’s quite different from how many people envision Hawai’i. It is extremely rough and rugged, with temperatures regularly falling below freezing. It is one of the most sacred sites of Native Hawaiians, one of the best sites in the world for astronomical observations—and, of course, home to the Palila.

The Palila is a Hawaiian honeycreeper that is specially adapted to feed on the seeds of māmane trees, which grow on the high-altitude slopes of Mauna Kea. Photo by Robby Kohley

The Palila is a Hawaiian honeycreeper that is specially adapted to feed on the seeds of māmane trees, which grow on the high-altitude slopes of Mauna Kea. Photo by Robby Kohley

Paving the way for Palila recovery

This project is working to restore high-elevation dry forest for the Palila, a Hawaiian honeycreeper listed as endangered in 1973. This Critically Endangered bird now occurs only on the southwestern slope of Mauna Kea, which is less than five percent of its historical distribution on Hawai’i Island.

Palila are dependent upon māmane trees, a legume (pea family), that provides these birds with about 90 percent of their diet in the form of seeds that are toxic to most other animals, yellow flowers, young leaves, and moth larvae found in the seed pods.

Bye-bye black sheep

In 2013, the Hawai’i Division of Forestry and Wildlife (DOFAW) began an eradication program to remove all hybrid-mouflon sheep from critical habitat designated for the Palila. Non-native ungulates like these have destroyed much of the forest over the past 200 years, and what remains is highly degraded due to continuing browse damage, drought, invasive plants, and fire.

Over 3,000 sheep were removed from Palila Critical Habitat  in 2013. Natural regeneration of māmane seedlings should increase habitat for the bird as sheep continue to be removed from Mauna Kea.

A view of the slopes of Mauna Kea from the air, showing habitat degradation by introduced non-native sheep. Photo by Robert Stevens

A view of the slopes of Mauna Kea from the air, showing habitat degradation caused by the grazing of introduced non-native sheep. Photo by Robert Stephens

Signs of success

Project staff are already observing habitat recovery at the 1,400-acre Ka’ohe Restoration Site, which was fenced in 2006 and has been sheep-free since then. Māmane saplings are over seven times more abundant at this site than on the other side of the fence, where sheep are still present.

American Bird Conservancy is a strong supporter of the work DOFAW and MKFRP are doing to restore forest on Mauna Kea and ensure the long-term viability of the Palila. To learn more about Palila ecology, threats and management, visit restoremaunakea.org.

Robert Stephens currently serves at the Coordinator for the Mauna Kea Forest Restoration Project and started working with Palila on Hawai’i Island in 2005. Previously, he worked for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. He received a B.S. degree in Wildlife Biology from Colorado State University and a M.S. degree in Zoology and Physiology from the University of Wyoming.

Frigid Forestry: How Winter Woods and Golden-wings Go Together

By George H. Fenwick, President, ABC

Great Gray Owl. Photo by iva, Shutterstock

Great Gray Owl, a sight that rewards who do bird conservation in the Minnesota winter. Photo by iva, Shutterstock

“It sure is easier when someone else has broken trail,” said Kevin Sheppard, a not-so-subtle reference to the fact that he had snow-shoed ahead of me for most of our tramp through the northern Minnesota woodland.

Kevin is  ABC’s Golden-winged Warbler (GWWA) Private Lands Coordinator and quite used to this weather. I, on the other hand, was a southern visitor learning about Kevin’s work in identifying prospective lands to restore as GWWA habitat. I suspect Kevin was conducting a scientific experiment to determine whether the head of ABC had any toughness about him.

Field work during a Minnesota winter often requires snowshoes. Photo by Kevin Sheppard, ABC

Tools of the Minnesota bird conservationists’ trade: snowshoes. Photo by Kevin Sheppard, ABC

 

I need not mention that, at 17 degrees F below zero, the nearest living GWWA was plucking insects off of a tropical tree somewhere thousands of miles south of Minnesota. Nor need I mention how few birds inhabit maple/aspen/ash woodlands when it is that cold. Nor that this level of frigidness means that no Virginian’s clothing is warm enough unless said person keeps moving – rapidly!

Ruffed Grouse are one of the suite of species that benefits from GWWA habitat restoration. Photo by Larry Master, masterimages.org

Ruffed Grouse, one one of the suite of species that benefits from GWWA habitat restoration. Photo by Larry Master, masterimages.org

In spite of these challenges, I learned a lot. First, I learned that Kevin is a seasoned forester who knows both his forest stuff and what GWWAs need as breeding habitat when they return to Minnesota in the spring. Though I knew a bit about this species’ habitat needs, I learned more about northern forest succession, and how we can improve management for a suite of species that includes Ruffed Grouse and American Woodcock.

I learned from Kevin how to tell fisher tracks from wolf tracks and how to recognize a Ruffed Grouse snow burrow. I also learned how much we need to do to bring the GWWA back to something approximating recent population numbers. There is quite a bit of aging aspen habitat that could be improved for our target birds by timber harvesting, which will help create the second-growth stands that these warblers prefer.

Golden-winged Warblers prefer second-growth habitats, and will benefit from management techniques that include harvesting of aging aspen stands. Photo by Greg Lavaty, texastargetbirds.com

Our focus bird: Although far away now, Golden-winged Warblers will benefit from our efforts come spring. Photo by Greg Lavaty, texastargetbirds.com

It is counter-intuitive to a mid-Atlantic guy like me, but forestry work in Minnesota is best done in the winter. Heavy equipment can become mired and damage thawed soil, and I already know from previous visits that some Minnesota denizens (mosquitoes, black flies) are not really welcoming. And, much as I dreaded getting out in that frosty weather, I had a terrific time. When the heart is pumping, the weather seems beautiful, and I returned to balmy Virginia quite certain that the birds are in very good hands with Kevin Sheppard.

And, yes, in case you are wondering, I saw some birds while I was there: Great Gray, Snowy and Northern Hawk owls, Goshawk, Evening and Pine grosbeaks, Northern Shrike, Snow Bunting, and more. Those who feel this is simply gloating are correct. That’s my payoff for a hard winter’s hike.

George H. Fenwick has served as President and CEO since ABC’s founding in 1994. Prior to that, he worked in a variety of capacities during 15 years with The Nature Conservancy, including Director of Science, and Chair of the Last Great Places Campaign Steering Committee. He received a Ph.D. in Pathobiology from Johns Hopkins University.