The View from Northern Nicaragua’s Highlands: Saving Birds with Coffee

Yellow Warbler, one of many migratory species that finds winter refuge in Latin American shade coffee farms. Photo by Alfred Yan.

Yellow Warbler, one of many migratory species that finds winter refuge in Latin American shade coffee farms. Photo by Alfred Yan.

by Scott Weidensaul

Migratory birds—which must overcome so many natural challenges as they journey from one end of the globe to another—are having a much harder time overcoming the obstacles that humans have added to the mix: habitat loss, environmental contaminants, climate change, and a lot more.

But we humans can be helpful, too. I saw vivid proof of that last January in the highlands of northern Nicaragua, where declining migrants such as Wood Thrushes spend the nonbreeding season. For years, this area has been a stronghold for farmers growing quality shade coffee. Not coincidentally, it’s also known as a paradise for birds.

An Island of Fertile Green

The highlands of northern Nicaragua, a productive shade coffee-growing region and refuge for migratory birds in winter. Photo by Scott Weidensaul.

The highlands of northern Nicaragua, a productive shade coffee-growing region and refuge for migratory birds in winter. Photo by Scott Weidensaul.

Everywhere we looked, we saw migrants: Philadelphia, Warbling, and Yellow-throated vireos; Tennessee, Chestnut-sided, Wilson’s, and Yellow warblers rolling through the understory in constant, flickering motion; Western Kingbirds and Western Wood-Pewees hawking insects in the treetops; Summer Tanagers and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks mixing with resident species like Black-headed Saltators and Clay-colored Robins. Flocks of Baltimore Orioles descended on blossoming trees and plucked the brilliant yellow flowers, dropping showers of blooms as they drank the rich pockets of nectar they’d revealed.

Later, in the village of San Juan del Río Coco, I met with members of a cooperative of more than 400 small coffee producers who raise more than 2.5 million pounds of shade coffee every year. These producers raise coffee the way it’s been farmed for centuries there, below the canopy of intact, functioning forests that provide critical habitat for scores of migratory bird species. When these shade coffee farmers prosper, the outlook for migratory birds gets brighter, too.

The fertile hills around Nicaragua’s San Juan del Río Coco are surrounded by denuded landscapes like this one—former forests converted to sun coffee, pasture, and grain fields. Photo by Scott Weidensaul.

The fertile hills around Nicaragua’s San Juan del Río Coco are surrounded by denuded landscapes like this one—former forests converted to sun coffee, pasture, and grain fields. Photo by Scott Weidensaul.

Seen from space, though, the hills around San Juan del Río Coco are an island of fertile green surrounded by hundreds of square kilometers of land already converted to sun coffee, pasture, and grain fields.

Increasingly, small shade coffee farms have been destroyed to make way for sun-tolerant coffee—an industrialized, chemical-dependent system that renders what had been prime bird habitat into the ecological equivalent of a parking lot. By some estimates, more than 40 percent of the shade coffee farms in Latin America have already been lost to satiate the demand for cheap coffee.

Drink the Right Coffee

Americans drink one-third of the world’s supply of coffee and are the driving force behind the shift from traditional, shade-grown coffee to habitat-destroying sun coffee. The decisions we make at the supermarket or specialty shop have profound effects on birds.

Sun coffee may be cheaper to purchase, but in truth, there is no such thing as “cheap coffee.” Throughout the tropics, inexpensive sun-grown varieties exact an enormous toll on biodiversity, not to mention rural families and small cooperatives steamrollered by large agribusinesses.

Fortunately, there is a surprisingly easy solution: Drink the right coffee.

Baltimore Orioles are one of many migratory bird species that overwinter in the habitat provided by Latin American shade-coffee farms. Photo by Ralph Wright.

Baltimore Orioles are one of many migratory bird species that overwinter in the habitat provided by Latin American shade-coffee farms. Photo by Ralph Wright.

Scientists at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC) created the Bird Friendly program to certify the very highest-quality shade coffee farms—the ones that provide the greatest benefit to migratory birds. By certifying this exceptional coffee, the SMBC program elevates its grade, so it then commands a premium price in the marketplace. This increased value creates a powerful incentive for farmers to keep shade coffee farms intact.

While there are other shade certification programs, Bird Friendly is widely regarded as the gold standard. It requires USDA organic certification, and to qualify, farmers must meet a rigorous list of requirements, from canopy height and native tree diversity to pollution controls when the coffee is milled.

The result? Coffee that safeguards habitat for the birds we care about, while providing an opportunity for farmers to receive a higher price for their crop—and which, because it ripens slowly in the shade, tastes far richer and more complex in your cup.

That’s the way it happens in the shade forest oasis that surrounds the Nicaraguan village of San Juan del Río Coco. Please, do what you can protect this oasis and many more like it—for the bugs, fruit, and nectar these healthy forests still produce, and for the way of life that supports both rural families and migratory birds.

All you have to do is choose Bird Friendly coffee. It may be the easiest and tastiest way to help migratory birds.

Editor’s Note: At ABC, we’re drinking Birds & Beans coffee. This coffeelogocoffee company is the only one we know of that produces 100 percent Bird Friendly coffee. There are many other coffee brands that are good for birds, too. Be sure to look for the Bird Friendly logo as well as “Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC).”
Scott Weidensaul is the author of more than two dozen books on natural history, including Living on the Wind and Of a Feather, as well as his newest, The First Frontier. He is also an active field researcher, specializing in the migration of owls and hummingbirds. Weidensaul lives in Pennsylvania.

Chilean Woodstar: A Species Clings to Life in an Otherworldly Landscape

The Chilean Woodstar has declined by 80 percent over the last decade. I visited Chile recently to explore how to prevent this species' extinction. Photo by Jorge Herreros.

The Chilean Woodstar has declined by 80 percent over the last decade. I visited Chile recently to explore how to prevent this species’ extinction. Photo by Jorge Herreros.

By Dan Lebbin

Departing the city of Arica, Chile, during predawn hours, Bojana Kuzimicic picks me up in a Suburu Forester SUV and we drive out into the desert. Our first destination is Taltape, in the Camarones Valley, a two hours’ drive south of Arica.

This desert, the Atacama, looks very much like images sent back to Earth from robots roving the surface of Mars. Not a single plant is visible among the soft sandy plains and mountains dotted with rocks, stretching as far as the eye can see in all directions. The color palate is otherworldly as well, featuring grays, taupes, and orange-reds. The highway and bright blue sky serve as reminders that we are still on Earth.

Bojana Kuzimicic, coordinator for the Chilean Woodstar project, led me on a tour of efforts to conserve one of Chile’s most threatened birds. In the background is the Chaca Reserve, where Bojana is working with other researchers and AvesChile to restore native vegetation. Photo by Dan Lebbin.

Bojana is a graduate student at the University of Chile, working with Cristian Estades and bird conservation group AvesChile to study and conserve the Chilean Woodstar, perhaps Chile’s most threatened bird. ABC is supporting this work thanks to a grant from the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund.

Going, Going … Not Quite Gone

Several canyons bisect this desert, formed by seasonal streams that run east to west from the High Andes to the Pacific Ocean. At the bottom of these Martian-like gorges, the flow of water supports modest vegetation within a narrow floodplain. Here, bushes, grasses, and horsetails sprout, and larger chañar bushes with small yellow flowers and acacia trees grow along the banks.

We pass through Martian-like landscapes, including this one in the Camarones Valley, on our way to the Chaca Reserve. Photo by Dan Lebbin.

The Chilean Woodstar was once found in these desert river valleys but has only been seen in remnant habitat patches during the last decade. During that time, the population has declined by more than 80 percent, from at least 1,500 birds in 2003 to roughly 400 birds in 2012. This decline started in the 1960s when pesticides (now discontinued) to control fruit flies were widely used. The species’ dramatic decline led ABC and partner group AvesChile to petition for the bird’s uplisting from Endangered to Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

While these meager oases provide habitat for birds, they also provide opportunities for farmers. Much of the vegetated habitat in these canyons has been converted to farm fields growing corn, onions, tomatoes, and olives. Most of the Chilean Woodstar’s natural habitat has been converted or heavily degraded in this way, and the species now relies on a mix of native and non-native plants for feeding and nesting.

In addition, the closely related Peruvian Sheartail, which competes and hybridizes with the Chilean Woodstar, has expanded its range from Peru into these areas of Chile and now outnumbers Chilean Woodstars. The woodstar may be disappearing most rapidly from areas where the alien sheartails have invaded.

The Search for Life

As we travel across the desert, we turn off the main highway to drive west into the Camarones Valley, named after the prawns that can found in its river. Early morning fog rolls up the valley from the coast, obscuring signs of life below. We descend on a dirt road, like a spaceship penetrating the atmosphere of an inhospitable planet.

We descend on a dirt road through the fog, like spaceship penetrating the atmosphere of an inhospitable planet. Photo by Dan Lebbin.

When we arrive at Taltape, we stop at a section of the river to start searching for Chilean Woodstars. Bojana says that males were defending territories here a few months ago, but since then, bulldozers have cleared the vegetation along the bank in preparation to plant crops. The smell of charcoal and blackened sand also reveals the use of recent fires to help clear debris in preparation for planting. We do not find any hummingbirds here.

Continuing up the valley, we stop at a rustic farm house surrounded by Peruvian pepper trees. In previous years, multiple Chilean Woodstars nested among the branches of these trees, which hang like weeping willows. Bojana shows me two nests within a few feet of each other in one tree, and a third in another. We then walk alfalfa fields and gravel bars in the river searching for Chilean Woodstars with no luck.

Nest of Chilean Woodstar. Multiple nests can be found in the same tree! Photo by Dan Lebbin.

Back at the farm house, I suddenly hear the monotonous chatter of a hummingbird near some agaves with yellow flowers. Soon, two female Chilean Woodstars appear and alternately feed on yellow aloe flowers and white flowers of a nearby tree. Although male Chilean Woodstars have violet and blue throats and an elongated tail, female Chilean Woodstars are much more muted in color.

A Decisive Moment for the Woodstar

AvesChile is working to create a small reserve here in the Taltape Valley to protect and restore habitat for the woodstar, and they have already established a small reserve at Chaca in the Vitor Valley, about 40 minutes away by car from Arica. This is our next stop.

Chile’s Vitor Valley, where researchers are studying how to best restore vegetation for the Chilean Woodstar.

Here, Cristian, Bojana, and colleagues have established experimental plots to study which soil and irrigation treatments are most effective for restoring native vegetation and flowering plants for the species. Red flags mark a partially completed trail, and beige shacks with locked doors house water tanks to irrigate the restoration plots.

Despite its small size, water runs in the stream through the Chaca Reserve, and it is full of life. Both the Oasis Hummingbird and Chilean Woodstar occur here, and songbirds like the Plain-mantled Tit-Spinetail, Cinereous Conebill, and Slender-billed Finch flit among the bushes.

Success! We spot a female Chilean Woodstar feeding on yellow agave flowers. Photo by Dan Lebbin.

Much more needs to be done to ensure that habitat for Chilean Woodstars is protected and restored, to halt this hummingbird’s decline and possible extinction. While in Chile, I had many conversations with Chilean government officials and AvesChile project personnel about future actions. In the next few months, government, NGO, business, agriculture, and other stakeholders will gather to identify the important next steps in conserving this species and will hopefully begin to act quickly.

ABC, AvesChile, and Chilean government officials would like to see a network of reserves established throughout the woodstar’s range—carefully managed to improve habitat quality for the species. AvesChile’s work at Chaca is just beginning to investigate how to accomplish this.

How will the story end? Either Chileans will be successful and begin to recover the Chilean Woodstar population before it is too late, or the world will lose a remarkably beautiful bird to extinction. We have much work to do to ensure a future for this bird.

Editor’s Note: ABC is currently seeking funding to expand our work with AvesChile to establish a network of small reserves where we can restore and manage habitat for the Chilean Woodstar, experiment with Peruvian Sheartail removal, conduct public outreach to reduce pesticide usage—and ultimately prevent the extinction of this species. Please consider supporting this important work with a donation to American Bird Conservancy.

Dan Lebbin is a Conservation Biologist with American Bird Conservancy. A birder since childhood, Daniel also enjoys bird illustration and photography, and his images appear in a variety of publications.

The Art of Waiting on St. Lucia’s White-breasted Thrasher

White-breasted Thrasher on nest. Photo by Gunnar Kramer.

White-breasted Thrasher on nest. Photo by Gunnar Kramer.

By Kate Freeman

While the Caribbean island of St. Lucia has many aspects of a tropical paradise, working in this forest is not exactly white sand and turquoise water. Snake chaps are a critical part of my field gear, as this place is home to the venomous Fer-de-Lance, or St. Lucia viper. Steep, rugged terrain and intense humidity also contribute to this harsh environment, where I’m in my third month of field work.

However inhospitable to humans, this forest is home to several endemic and endangered birds, including the critically endangered White-breasted Thrasherthe reason I am here. My study area holds over 90 percent of the St. Lucia population of this species (about 1,200 individuals), as well as the endangered St. Lucia Black Finch, the endemic St. Lucia Warbler, the endemic subspecies of Lesser Antillean Flycatcher, and 13 other range-restricted species. I hope to learn more about the thrasher’s conservation needs, so plans can be made to ensure its survival.

Into the Forest

I wring out my handkerchief and wipe my brow, trying to ignore the sweat beading on my spine and dripping down my shins. After a steep ascent, we are standing in a grove of bwa gwiyé and bwa kewol trees—small deciduous trees that dominate the Mandelé dry forest on the east coast of St. Lucia. This forest borders the town of Praslin, a small fishing village that is home to about 300 hundred St. Lucians. Blue flags mark nest #36, a large open cup, loosely woven out of dried sticks and leaves and containing two brilliant blue eggs.

The smell of rotting mangoes, littering the forest floor, is pungent in the midday heat. My heart leaps as I see a dark flash of motion up ahead, but I am once again fooled by an anole (lizard), leaping from branch to branch. Michael Philigence, my local field assistant and forest guru, shoots me a look from his crouched position; “Patience,” I know he is thinking.

I would not make it far in the forest without Michael’s intuition and navigational abilities. A Praslin native, Michael grew up with the forest as his backyard. Armed with no more than a cutlass (the local Kwéyòl word for machete), Michael moves with swift grace, darting under low branches and leaping over fallen logs. I pant, sweat, and trip along behind, exerting all of my effort just to keep up with him. In addition to a seemingly photographic memory of the forest, Michael is also a huge help with nest searching.

On Island Time

Thrashers nest at three to ten feet in understory trees, predominately bwa gwiyé. Michael has an amazing ability to find a nest. He can point them out before even seeing them, while I may spend 20 minutes searching for one that is directly in front of me. He must have found more than half of the 85 nests we tracked this season.

Beyond nest searching, our daily tasks include mist-netting and banding adult thrashers. Mist-netting around a nest in the forest is no small task. The steady swing of Michael’s cutlass, cutting and stripping the bark of saplings for nest poles, is crucial. Together we must maneuver a pair of six-meter nets around the nests without disturbing any surrounding vegetation. (I believe it is a new form of tropical martial arts!) Once the nets are in place around the nest comes the “art of waiting.” These tropical critters seem to move on island time. Unlike the frantic rush of the breeding season I’m accustomed to in the Northern Hemisphere, these thrashers may wait 40 minutes or more between nest visits.

I crouch low, careful not to touch the forest floor for fear of chiggers, fire ants, venomous snakes, and stinging plants. After five minutes of stillness, Michael points to a branch above my head. I smile and look up, reaching for my binoculars. A stark white breast stands out against sleek black plumage. I will never tire of the sight of a White-breasted Thrasher. This bird has no fancy bells or whistles, but an understated elegance which makes it as attractive to me as the brightest tropical bird.

Through my binoculars, I read “Red-Green” and “Orange-Silver” combinations of bands on the bird’s long legs. I now know that this bird is the breeding female, coming to keep a watchful eye on her eggs.

A Future for the Thrasher

The White-breasted Thrasher, known in Kwéyòl as Gorge Blanc (white throat), inhabits dry river valleys in eastern and northern St. Lucia. There is only one other small population of White-breasted Thrashers, on the neighboring West Indian island of Martinique. Introduced mammals and habitat destruction are the primary threats to these rare and endangered birds. The subpopulation where I am working in Mandelé, St. Lucia, now faces an immediate crisis:  a 500-plus-acre resort under construction that has destroyed 37 percent of the thrasher’s total habitat.

Condominium development on St. Lucia, part of an abandoned development that has fragmented habitat. Photo by Kate Freeman.

Condominium development on St. Lucia, part of an abandoned development that has fragmented habitat. Photo by Kate Freeman.

Forest once occupied by White-breasted Thrasher, and essential for its successful nesting, was cleared in 2006 for a golf course and residential resort. In addition to outright habitat destruction, fragmentation from the resort development created an “edge effect,” exposing the now-small forest patches to invasive predators along forest borders and increasing nest predation.

Deforestation and the resulting erosion have turned a once-productive native forest into a desiccated wasteland. Nonetheless, thrashers continue to nest in high density in the forest patches between the golf course fairways. I am investigating the thrashers’ behavioral shift resulting from this changed ecosystem. Cooperative breeding, where three to six adults collectively care for nestlings in one nest, is more prevalent among thrashers in the fragments than those nesting in intact forest. I am monitoring nests in both the fragments and a nearby forest reserve to compare nest success, behavior, and the impact of predation.

Michael Philigence with cage trap, part of our effort to estimate mammal density and diet. Photo by Kate Freeman.

Michael Philigence with cage trap, part of our effort to estimate mammal density and diet. Photo by Kate Freeman.

Thanks to the support of American Bird Conservancy, I am including small mammal trapping in my conservation study this year. The forest fragments on the golf course are a perfect home to introduced mammals such as cats, rats, Indian mongoose, and opossum. These mammals are significant predators of the White-breasted Thrasher and are a particular threat to nestlings and fledglings. We set cage traps throughout the forest fragments to estimate mammal density and diet. Because thrashers are endemic to the West Indies, they evolved in the absence of these mammalian predators and lack the instincts to protect themselves. Removing cats and mongoose from the site is showing to be an effective measure in increasing thrasher nest success.

This critical wildlife habitat may disappear if conscious conservation measures are not taken in St. Lucia. Continued research and educational outreach are critical to protect White-breasted Thrashers—and the environmentally and culturally rich ecosystem where these birds live.

Kate-FreemanKate Freeman is a graduate student in biology at Villanova University. She spent May-August 2013 in St. Lucia studying the White-breasted Thrasher for her thesis research.

Millerbird Drama: Season Finale on Laysan Island

August 26 – September 8, 2013
Andrea Kristof

Much-anticipated sight: Millerbird fledgling foraging in Chenopodium oahuense, a native shrub restored on the island. Photo by Megan Dalton.

The Millerbirds’ fourth breeding wave of the 2013 season continued through our last days on Laysan Island, reflecting the incredible success of our project to ensure a future for this endangered species. Twenty-three pairs are currently displaying breeding behavior ranging from nest construction to feeding nestlings, making it the single largest breeding effort of the season to date.

Simultaneously, the hatch-year birds from the earlier breeding waves are attempting to carve out a place for themselves in the adults’ world. We have observed a few young male fledglings from all three previous breeding waves of this year singing recognizable songs (although some of them are still a little raspy) and defending territories. Some of these hatch-year birds have experienced greater success entering the adult world than others. The (probable) hatch-year male that is defending the Southeast-of-the-Knoll territory has been consistently observed in that area, successfully fending off males from the resident, adult pairs to the north and northwest, as well as the intrusion of at least three young hatch-year males attempting to stake out a territory of their own.

This same young male has also been often observed in the company of a hatch-year female from the Northwest Bowl territory, sometimes engaged in courtship behavior with her. To the west, the young Catchment East male momentarily had it all—a prime territory and an interested female—only to have it all taken away one morning by the North-of-Cocos male, whose female (we suspect) ran off with the Catchment East male. He has since been observed singing, alone, in several other areas of the Millerbird core habitat. Along the northeastern fringes of the naupaka, the Pōpolo male has repeatedly lured the South-of-Northeast-Entrance female into his territory. So far, this new pairing has been tenuous and brief, and we’ve watched the South-of-Northeast-Entrance male venture north several times, chasing this female back into his territory.

These birds have been our version of celebrities this summer, each playing their respective role in the large soap opera that we have been enjoying in the Millerbird core habitat. They were a daily presence in our lives and a constant source of island gossip. We were shocked at the scandals, hopeful at new beginnings, and sad during their absences. As we depart Laysan, I think we will all spend the winter curious about what our Millerbird friends are up to in our absence. Will the Catchment East male ever settle down into a territory and secure a lady friend? Will the younger Pōpolo male successfully seduce the South of Northeast Entrance female away from her current partner? When the next Millerbird monitoring team arrives next year, will territories be established outside of the large northern naupaka patch? Will the 2013 hatch-years be feeding nestlings of their own?

Nature Sighting of the Week

We observed a sight that has been much anticipated for several years now: a Millerbird in ‘āweoweo (Chenopodium oahuense), a native shrub indigenous to both Nihoa and Laysan. A hatch-year bird from the Knoll territory was resighted on multiple occasions calling and foraging in one of the Chenopodium colonies just downhill from the northern naupaka patch, which has served as the primary residence of the Millerbirds on Laysan Island for the first two years.

Chenopodium oahuense is planted in areas where the invasive Pluchea indica was removed. This species was historically common on both Laysan and Nihoa (where Millerbirds have been documented to use it extensively).  Photo by Andrea Kristof

Chenopodium oahuense is planted in areas where the invasive Pluchea indica was removed. This species was historically common on both Laysan and Nihoa (where Millerbirds have been documented to use it extensively).
Photo by Andrea Kristof.

Reuniting these two species—bird and plant—required substantial effort and time. In the planning stages of the Millerbird translocation, Chenopodium was identified as an important plant to have on Laysan. It was one of the three species that the Millerbird was known to utilize on Nihoa, the source of the translocated Millerbird population, and was historically abundant on Laysan. However, three years ago, when the Millerbird project team conducted its reconnaissance trip to Laysan, Chenopodium was found to be rare on the island.  The shrub faces severe competition from an invasive species, Indian Fleabane (Pluchea indica), which significantly altered the prospective Millerbird habitat adjacent to the lake, outcompeting native vegetation like Chenopodium, the endemic Laysan sedge (Cyperus pennatiformis var. bryanii), and the endangered loulu palm (Pritchardia remota).

Chenopodium had relatively recently been reintroduced to Laysan by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Refuge personnel. Although early biological accounts from Laysan report that Chenopodium was the second-most abundant plant on the island, the introduction of rabbits caused its extirpation in the early 1900s. Seeing a Millerbird utilize this species is a wonderful culmination of countless hours of invasive species control and native plant propagation. We had already observed how these restoration efforts benefit many members of Laysan’s ecosystem, but the presence of a Millerbird was definitely a landmark event.

Farewell to Laysan

This week USFWS Refuges commenced the closure of the Laysan Island field camp due to the impacts of sequestration. It has been difficult to contemplate leaving, because invasive plants that field crews have worked to eradicate for more than two decades could easily regain the upper hand. Rare and endangered native plants might be out-competed.

But seeing the Millerbird foraging in the Chenopodium reminds me of all that has been accomplished in the last few years, and I hope that the positive actions that many dedicated people have contributed to restoring Laysan’s ecosystem will continue to resonate through future years. Just over the course of my short four years working on Laysan, there are three native species that once again call Laysan home after a century-long absence. There are also two non-native species that we eradicated from Laysan.

I like to envision that, in another five years, the young, endangered loulu palms that were planted along the eastern lakeshore will have matured into three-meter-tall fan palms visible from the western coast. I can imagine their broad fronds providing a much-needed respite from the summer sun for Laysan Albatross chicks, and their yellow flowers and juicy purple fruits providing an appetizing delicacy for the voracious Laysan Finches.

In seven years, perhaps some of the albatross chicks that we excavated when they’d been buried by wind-blown sand in the Northern Desert—a human-created desert, an unfortunate reminder of a rabbit introduction that denuded the island of its vegetation over a century ago—will return to their natal island in search of a mate. A couple of decades from now, I hope that some of the straggler green sea turtle hatchlings that we unearthed during nest excavations and protected from the zealous claws of ghost crabs as they made their way into the ocean will crawl out of the water one moonlit summer night to lay eggs of their own.

And I very much hope that sooner rather than later, a field crew will be restored to Laysan Island, so that past restoration work can be salvaged, so that the ecosystem can continue to be restored and monitored, and so that the biological wonders that occur here can be experienced by a new generation of conservation biologists.

Andrea Kristof is a long-time Laysan camp manager and new member of the Millerbird team.

Bring Back the Birds! Parting Thoughts on Partners in Flight V

By David Younkman

Bobolink, one of the focal species for the Partners in Flight V meeting. Conservation business plans started at the meeting will help “bring back” the population of this and many other migratory bird species.  Photo: PA Game Commission.

Bobolink, one of the focal species for the Partners in Flight V meeting. Conservation business plans started at the meeting will help bring back the population of this and many other migratory bird species. Photo: PA Game Commission.

In case you missed it last week, Partners in Flight V (PIFV)—a three-day conference and conservation Workshop held in Snowbird, Utah—was quite the event. More than 225 people (45 of them from Latin America and the Caribbean) from 120 agencies and organizations and 14 countries came together to chart the future for conserving America’s migratory birds.

“Conserving?” No, more than that, for ABC President George Fenwick challenged the assembled group to do much more than just conserve the birds. He challenged the group to “bring back the birds”—to restore their numbers from their precipitous decline to the population levels they had only 50 years ago.

Like most conferences, PIFV was characterized by renewing old friendships combined with creating many new ones. Mornings started off with excellent plenary talks each day; evenings were capped off with poster sessions, receptions, and social gatherings of various kinds.

But unlike some other meetings, this one got straight to work creating conservation business plans for eight geographic regions that focused on “birds of high conservation concern” throughout their full annual life-cycle. Eight breakout groups identified threats and conservation strategies, and then outlined specific projects that will put those strategies into action and make a measurable difference for our birds.

What’s next? All of the conservation business plans need much more work, and they will be continually evolving. Participation in further development of these documents must be broadened to include many individuals who were unable to attend PIFV.  And the dozens (or even hundreds) of projects that emerge will each need to be fleshed out and funded. While PIFV was a terrific victory and a great accomplishment, it is only one big step in a longer, ongoing process.

Bringing back the birds will be a big job. But leaving this remarkable event, I can’t ignore the feeling that our birds will be far better off because of these three days that we spent together in Utah.

Dave YounkmanDavid Younkman is Vice President for Conservation at American Bird Conservancy and played a lead role in the planning for Partners in Flight V.

Multi-tasking Millerbird Parents

August 12-25, 2013
Megan Dalton

A pair of Millerbirds wing-fluttering to each other, a courtship behavior. Photo: Megan Dalton

For most of the last two weeks, we did not find any new Millerbird chicks, so our tally for the 2013 breeding season was stuck at 48. However, due to a very sneaky, very busy pair in the territory on the southern side of the core Millerbird habitat we call Sickly Sicyos (due to a lot of unhealthy looking viney Sicyos sp.), the total fledgling number is now the nice and clean number of 50! This is a great benchmark for the birds and the overall Millerbird translocation project, as we prepare to leave Laysan in three weeks.

Those two stealthy Millerbird parents have had us scratching our heads since June, when they built a lovely nest in a naupaka shrub but did not lay eggs. Since then we’ve seen a couple of signs that made us wonder if they were re-nesting in the same shrub, yet we could never find any definitive evidence. Most birds had paused all breeding activity in order to molt, and this was a relatively inexperienced pair, so we underestimated their potential. We were all pleasantly surprised earlier this week when Michelle saw the male with color band combo W/G:BK/B, bringing food to an enthusiastically begging, unbanded fledgling multiple times in the very same shrub where they had attempted to nest before. Another beggar was heard in a bush nearby, where the female with color band combo W/W:B/W (who is currently without a tail due to molting) was hanging out. Since they normally split up feeding duties between chicks, it made sense that there were at least two fledglings in this brood.

The pair’s successful breeding during their period of molt is a testament to their perseverance, but also to the high-quality habitat offered by Laysan. There must be sufficient food items available to get them through the extremely energetically taxing time of re-growing all their feathers, while simultaneously staying in peak condition to reproduce and provide for their young. Amazing!

Nature Sighting of the Week

Although this doesn’t look like it ends well for the Laysan Albatross, this lucky fledgling was able to escape the imminent jaws of a large tiger shark. Photo: Michelle Wilcox

Someone recently reminded us that it was Shark Week a few weeks ago, at least back in the land of cable television. Out here on Laysan, it seems like Shark Week has lasted over a month. You may have heard of the seasonal tiger shark migration throughout the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to shallow waters surrounding albatross colonies. Around July and August, right when the majority of albatross chicks are making their first trek out to sea, large numbers of tiger sharks show up to chow down on the naïve and clumsy chicks.

On Laysan, attacks are usually seen in waters off the southern edge of the island, as well as in a southwestern bay fronting the large beach nicknamed The Sidewalk. Keeping this in mind, I was walking south from camp along the shore one day, periodically scanning the ocean and listening for any sudden splashes. When I hit The Sidewalk, I sat down and got out my binoculars and focused on a few birds out in the bay. The first bird I trained my eyes on got gulped down quickly by a rather large and sleek shark. Not five seconds later, a second nearby bird was also attacked. This time it took the shark three tries to actually seize the terrified albatross. I have to confess that my heart felt like it was racing and simultaneously breaking. I was thrilled to see such a real, raw, and essential act of nature—it isn’t often that I find myself in the presence of such a powerful predator. On the other hand, we have spent nearly five months watching our albatross neighbors struggle to regularly provide for their chicks. A number of them don’t seem to survive to fledging, so it was terribly sad to see these ones who are so close to making it traveling down the toothy gullet of a large shark. But obviously I’m biased, and I haven’t spent months underwater watching all the sharks’ struggles of survival. (Plus the albatrosses are cuter.)

In Other News on Laysan

An unknown species of duck was seen twice in the last two weeks. Because it was skittish and easily flushed from far distances, we were unable to get a good look at it except that it appeared dark colored and had a very short tail.

The lakeshore is once again bustling with shorebird activity as more Pacific Golden-Plovers, Ruddy Turnstones, and Wandering Tattlers arrive. Wedge-tailed Shearwater chicks are hatching in droves, Sooty Tern chicks are taking to the air, Brown Noddy chicks have begun to shuffle around on their little feet, and the Bonin Petrels have started working on their burrows in preparation for their breeding season. Red-footed Boobies and Great Frigatebird chicks continue to grow as they sit upon their stick nests; they are slowly replacing their down with body contour feathers and flight feathers. There are plenty of Red-tailed Tropicbird chicks underneath the vegetation, some old enough to fledge, others more recently hatched.

Join us in a couple of weeks for our final 2013 posting about the Millerbirds on Laysan.

Megan Dalton is a Millerbird
monitoring biologist on Laysan.

Coming Together to Save Bird Species: Can It Be Done?

Prairie Warbler, one of eight focal species for PIFV's Caribbean working group. Photo by Bill Hubick.

Prairie Warbler, one of eight focal species for PIFV’s Caribbean working group.
Photo by Bill Hubick.

By Peter Marra

Day two at PIF V. Stayed up too late drinking and talking bird conservation. No regrets and I’ll do it again tonight. Now I’m in the morning session … Andean music, bird quiz … then on to the plenary talks, which took a high altitude approach to the history of conservation in Costa Rica and then to the origins of ecosystems and the incorporation of human dimensions into conservation science. But my mind keeps focusing on the task at hand: how to stop the enigmatic declines of so many migratory birds over such large areas in such a complex world.

I’m feeling dizzy, not from the late night but by the challenge in charting the course. It’s important that we spend the energy required to all get on the same page. It doesn’t just happen without effort. We’re looking at two approaches: a species approach as well as site-based conservation. I’m still looking for an explicit direction forward to save these declining species.

Later, in the morning session of the conservation business plan workshop, we focused on the Caribbean. We discussed how we deal with large-scale development—for tourism, energy extraction, and mining. These are big problems and ones in need of big solutions. We discussed a range of ideas from public service announcements with celebrities to increasing ecotourism. To succeed in turning the tide for the eight high-priority species we identified for this region, we are going to have to work hard and fast—and at times, I find myself having doubts on whether it can be done. In the short term, I am still inclined to depend on the science and look for specific geographic areas for targeted solutions.

PeterPeter Marra is a conservation scientist at the Migratory Bird Center, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. 

piflogocolorThis week, ABC hosts blogs from our friends at the Partners in Flight V (PIFV) meeting taking place in Snowbird, Utah. We are delighted to spread the word about PIF’s great work to advance migratory bird conservation. For more information on the meeting, see