Avian Methuselah: Celebrated Shorebird Keeps on Trucking

The beautiful rufa Red Knot, an inspiring survivor. Reported in this blog post are some rays of hope for the species' future. Photo by Mike Parr, ABC

The beautiful rufa Red Knot, an inspiring survivor. Reported in this blog post are some rays of hope for the species’ future. Photo by Mike Parr, ABC

By John Nielsen, Senior Staff Writer and Editor, ABC

The rufa Red Knot called B95 or “Moonbird” may be the most famous bird on earth. I can’t think of any other wild bird that has its own biographer (Philip Hoose, author of “Moonbird.”) Nor am I aware of any other single bird that has its own statue (at the Mispillion Harbor Reserve near the town of Milford, Delaware.) Moonbird is the only bird I know of that makes headlines by not dying. This is as it should be, since B95 is living proof that migratory birds can be incredible survivors.

The long-lived Red Knot with the tag B95, known as “Moonbird,” has become famous enough to merit its own biography.

The long-lived Red Knot with the tag B95, known as “Moonbird,” has become famous enough to merit its own biography.

Every year, B95 flies back and forth between its Artic breeding grounds and wintering spots in southern South America, traveling approximately 10,000 miles in the process. That’s a truly stunning feat, but it is not the thing that makes Moonbird so special. What makes Moonbird special is the fact that while the lifespan of the average rufa Red Knot is about five years, this knot has been on the wing for 19 years, at least. In that time, the cumulative distance travelled by B95 is thought be much greater than the distance to the moon. Hence the nickname Moonbird, and the widespread awe that comes with each new sighting.

The most recent proof that Moonbird is still with us comes from Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. There it was picked out of a flock of roughly 100 Red Knots gathered on a beach. Patricia M. Gonzales of the Global Flyway Network identified the bird through binoculars. Gonzales told the New York Times that her hands started shaking when she recognized the badly faded orange tag attached to Moonbird’s right leg.

Sightings of this legendary bird are almost always used to draw attention to an ugly trend line, one that shows that rufa Red Knot populations have been plummeting for decades. Widespread loss of habitat and overfishing of the once-abundant horseshoe crabs that converge on the Delaware Bay each spring to lay millions of eggs, are leading to its decline. Still, flocks of migratory Red Knot almost always reach the bay as the horseshoe crab egg-laying begins. The chaotic feast that follows is amazing, but much smaller than it used to be.

Red Knots and other shorebirds converge on the shores of the Delaware Bay each spring by the thousands to feast on horseshoe crabs eggs, re-building their fat stores to finish the long migration to Arctic breeding grounds. Photo by Gregory Breese, USFWS

Red Knots and other shorebirds converge on the shores of the Delaware Bay each spring by the thousands to feast on horseshoe crabs eggs, re-building their fat stores to finish the long migration to Arctic breeding grounds. Photo by Gregory Breese, USFWS

The latest Moonbird sighting in Tierra del Fuego brings a few new rays of hope for the survival of the species. One comes from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has proposed to add the rufa Red Knot to the list of plants and animals protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Another comes from field teams that count Red Knots in the Delaware Bay each spring. Last year, they reported that the Red Knot population had held steady from the year before. Scientifically it’s not yet possible to figure out what that statistic means, or whether it’s linked to new restrictions on the annual harvest of horseshoe crabs. But that’s still much better than sharp declines that have long been the norm.

No one doubts that there’s a huge amount of work that must be done if we’re to bend this ugly trend line upward. We’ll need to be stubborn and we’ll need to find our way around all kinds of obstacles and threats.

We need to be more like Moonbird.

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.

How to See a Lear’s Macaw

The large, bright blue Lear's Macaw is only found in northeastern Brazil. This bird is emerging from its cliffside roost. Photo by Ciro Albano, NE Brazil Birding

The large, bright blue Lear’s Macaw is only found in northeastern Brazil. This bird is emerging from its cliffside roost. Photo by Ciro Albano, NE Brazil Birding

By David Younkman, Vice President of Conservation, ABC

If you ever find yourself in northeastern Brazil, go see one of the wonders of the bird world: Lear’s Macaws emerging by the hundreds from the crannies of a windswept cliff face. Thirty years ago this species seemed to be on the verge of extinction, with only 60 left in the wild. Now there are hundreds of Lear’s Macaws, thanks to conservation programs launched by groups such as ABC and our Brazilian partner, Biodiversitas.

The only wild home of the Lear’s Macaw is found near the town of Canudos, in the Brazilian state of Bahia. There, in an endless-looking red-dirt landscape called “caatinga country,” these birds nest and breed in wind-blown, dried-out, isolated cliffs. Crops and cattle struggle here, but you’ll still find lots of spindly corn, yucca, and licuri palm, the last the chief food of the Lear’s Macaw.

The caatinga (dry scrub habitat) of northeastern Brazil's Bahia state is the only remaining place in the world to find Lear's Macaw. Photo by Eduardo Figueiredo

The caatinga (dry scrub habitat) of northeastern Brazil’s Bahia state is the only remaining place in the world to find Lear’s Macaw. Photo by Eduardo Figueiredo

Before you see the birds themselves, check into an isolated lodge run by Biodiversitas and built with the support of ABC’s donors. Then you sleep, but not for long. Long before the sun comes up you rouse yourself and stagger to the car that takes you to the cliffs where these birds nest. If the skies aren’t cloudy, you will see a brilliant sea of stars, and the curving edges of the Milky Way.

After that you wait in the dark under a tree, until just before the sun comes up. That’s when you hear the first bird call, and then the second, and then several more.

Macaws on the Move

Shadows moving on the cliff start to show their colors. Then, all at once, an enormous flock of Lear’s Macaws explodes out of the cliff, rising as a group—no, several groups—circling above your head. One, then three, then 10 or more land on a sunlit cactus: large, bright blue, with golden eyes and cheeks. In the meantime, you see more flocks emerging from the pockmarked cliff face, circling and then landing in nearby trees. After a few minutes they will rise, some flying for more than 50 miles to find their food for the day.

A group of Lear’s Macaws getting ready for the day. Photo by Ciro Albano, NE Brazil Birding

A group of Lear’s Macaws getting ready for the day. Photo by Ciro Albano, NE Brazil Birding

In the car again, you drive for hours on rutted, bumpy roads so you can spy the feeding birds. Then, back at the lodge, you rest until you realize that you must see these birds again. With your guide, you take a long hot walk through the red rocks and red sand, crossing what appears to be a dried-out river bed with lots of twisted sandbars.

When you reach the cliffs, you wait for the returning flocks. In the waning sunlight everything about these cliffs looks beautiful—the way they tower overhead, the patterns of erosion, the deep shades of red. While waiting, you marvel at the way the Lear’s Macaw digs nest holes in these cliffs, loosening the rocks with its saliva.

View of the Esquentada Canyon, which contains several Lear's Macaw nests. Photo by Eduardo Figueiredo

View of the Esquentada Canyon, which contains several Lear’s Macaw nests. Photo by Eduardo Figueiredo

Just before the light fails you see flocks of birds you did not see that morning—first, small, green Cactus (or Caatinga) Parakeets, with squeaky high-pitched calls. They flash green across the cliffs before disappearing into foliage. But by then you’re focused on the fast-approaching flocks of Blue-crowned Parakeets, bigger and deeper voiced. Chattering and pecking, they fill up the cliff face on one side of the canyon, leaving the other side open. When something spooks them, 50 of these parakeets shoot up as one and then circle slowly downwards. Is that a Bat Falcon on the opposite cliff? How long has it been there?

Thirty minutes until nighttime now. At this point you’re hoping that your guide knows the way back. Then, just as the fading light stops holding colors, you hear the returning Lear’s Macaws. Big, loud voices call out as hundreds of broad shadows fly toward the cliff face left open by the parakeets. As they land you see the gold parts but you cannot see the blue. Bigger, louder flocks are coming after this one—do they use the same roosts every time?—and as darkness falls they start to settle in.

A flock of Lear's Macaws returns to its roosting cliff site at dusk. Photo by David Wiedenfeld, ABC

A flock of Lear’s Macaws returns to its roosting cliff site at dusk. Photo by David Wiedenfeld, ABC

Seeing It for Yourself

That’s what I saw recently while traveling in Brazil. I think you should see it too—if only in your mind’s eye. The Lear’s Macaw is more than an incredibly beautiful and intelligent bird species. It is also part of an amazing spectacle that was once was nearly lost. But now it’s been recovered.

To learn more about the work that helped them back from the brink of extinction, check out the conservation projects section on the ABC website. And if you are inspired to visit, check out our Conservation Birding website.

David Younkman is Vice President of Conservation at American Bird Conservancy. He has more than 30 years’ worth of senior management experience in the field of conservation.

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.