Land around powerlines could be boon to birds

(Michael Casey 21 May 2017)

Transmission lines may be eyesores for most people but for songbirds, the forest around them might just be critical habitat.

A team of researchers want to see if these birds are populating land cleared along the route of a powerline—as well as areas that have been recently logged—in New Hampshire and Maine.

In other parts of the country, the shrubby habitat of these younger forests have been found to offer much-needed protection for the birds from predators, as well as a steady diet of insects and fruit.

One of the researchers says these habitats are “incredibly important” for the songbirds in those parts of northern New England.

“Our goal is to get a better understanding for how these habitats function in our landscape,” said Matt Tarr, a wildlife specialist at the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension.

Tarr and his colleagues will catch the songbirds in mist nests starting later this month, band them and then track them over the next two years. They will be focused on 24 transmission line rights of way and 12 areas that been logged in southeastern New Hampshire and southern Maine.

Tarr said there are as many as 40 species of songbirds that nest in young forests and another group that nest in mature forests.

“However, there is growing evidence suggesting that after their birds finish their nesting and the young leave the nest, they leave mature forests and come into the young forest to complete their development.”

The nearly $250,000 study is being funded by the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service as well as the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s New England Forests and Rivers Fund. A contributor to the New England fund is the utility Eversource, which has proposed the Northern Pass energy transmission project that has sparked criticism from property owners, tourism officials and others.

Northern Pass entails building a 192-mile electricity transmission line from Pittsburg to Deerfield, New Hampshire, carrying enough Hydro-Quebec energy to southern New England markets to power about a 1.1 million homes.

Tarr said the study isn’t about finding an upside to transmission lines but rather trying to determine how birds use the forests that emerge after a project is built.

“It helps us understand how transmission lines function in providing that habitat on the landscape,” he said.

The information they get could be critical to policymakers as they work to create more young forests for birds as well as other species like cottontail rabbits in New England.

“Do they have positive effects or do they have negative effects?” he said. “We might find these rights of way aren’t used as we think they are for mature forest birds. That would be important for us to know.”

Wild geese in China are ‘prisoners’ in their own wetlands

(Physorg 22 May 2017)
In many places in the world, goose populations are booming as the birds have moved out of their wetland habitats to exploit an abundance of food on farmland. But, new evidence reported in Current Biology on May 22 confirms, that’s not working so well for migratory waterbirds that overwinter in China.
The findings help to explain why China’s waterbirds are in decline, researchers say.

“We can now show what we suspected all along, namely that geese do not sneak off the wetlands to feed on farmland at night, but rather remain within the wetlands close to where they feed and roost both by day and night,” says Lei Cao of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “Whilst this saves them energy and the risk of death from the hunters and poachers they encounter on dry land, it does constrain them to the wetlands and the quality of the food that they can find there.”

The waterbirds that spend their winters in China’s Yangtze River wetlands travel a long way to get there, migrating from Russia, Mongolia, and other parts of China to avoid the icy northern winters.

“These birds have nowhere else to go; farther north everything is frozen, and to the south there are no vast river systems or freshwater wetlands,” Cao says.

Cao and her colleagues have been concerned about geese and other waterbirds in China since surveys they conducted in the early 2000s showed that the birds were in decline. In the new study, they wanted to learn more about where the birds spend their time.

The researchers attached GPS tracking devices to 67 wintering wild geese representing five different species at three important wetlands in China’s Yangtze River Floodplain and followed the animals throughout the winter.

The tracking data showed that 50 of the birds representing species known to be in decline never left degraded natural wetlands where they’ve spent their winters for generations. Another 17 individuals from two species that show more stable population trends used wetlands the vast majority of the time. However, they did occasionally venture into neighboring rice paddies.

“This is a vital piece of evidence to support our hypothesis that, because Chinese geese are clearly ‘prisoners’ of their wetland habitats, their recent declines relate to reductions in the quality and extent of these wintering habitats upon which they rely,” Cao says.

The results help to confirm earlier studies linking declines among Chinese wintering geese to habitat loss and a degraded food supply. But what keeps geese in China from taking advantage of neighboring rice paddies and other agricultural lands in the way geese do in other places?

Cao and colleagues speculate that it’s because of greater human activity in cereal and rice fields in China. Chinese farmers also raise domestic ducks and geese in the stubble fields, leaving little food behind for their wild counterparts. Wintering geese are also a popular target of hunters who use shotguns, nets, traps, and poison to kill thousands upon thousands of birds every year. As a result, they conclude, the geese are effectively imprisoned in increasingly degraded wetland habitats.

The researchers say they’ll continue to explore the unique threats faced by these birds in China. They’re also building international collaborations and partnerships throughout East Asia to study and identify trouble spots for the birds all along their long-distance migratory routes.

Nearly 400 Migratory Birds Were Killed by One Texas Building in a Single Night

(Meghan Bartels 5 May 2017;Photo: Josh Henderson)

Animal Services was able to rescue just three birds after a massive number of spring migrants hit a glass-sided tower in Galveston.

The numbers are horrifying: 90 Nashville Warblers, 60 Blackburnian Warblers, 42 Chestnut-sided Warblers, 41 Ovenbirds—and that’s just four of the 25 dead species collected from the 23-story American National Insurance building in Galveston, Texas, on Thursday morning. In total, 395 small feathered bodies were found, and they were all victims of building collisions.

Josh Henderson, the head of Animal Services for the Galveston Police Department, was called to the scene at 7:20 a.m. He was able to rescue three of the stunned birds, which were then taken to a wildlife triage center. But the sheer number of casualties shocked him. “This is the largest event like this I have ever been a part of in over 10 years,” Henderson said in a press release.

After sorting and IDing the bodies, Henderson’s final list also included: 29 Yellow Warblers, 26 Black-and-white Warblers, 24 Magnolia Warblers, 21 American Redstarts, 15 Indigo Buntings, 8 Black-throated Green Warblers, 5 Kentucky Warblers, 4 Eastern Wood-Peewees, 3 Golden-winged Warblers, 2 Painted Buntings, 2 Orchard Orioles, plus a Hooded Warbler, Gray Catbird, Blue Grosbeak, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Orange-crowned Warbler, Summer Tanager, Worm-eating Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo, and Cerulean Warbler.

Window and building strikes are a common problem for songbirds, particularly in cities located in popular migration flyways. The island of Galveston lies in the Gulf of Mexico, which is a common crossover point for flocks coming up from the Yucatan and Latin America. With spring migration in full swing, hundreds of thousands of birds are currently racing through the region to reach their northern breeding grounds. To make matters worse, Galveston got almost a quarter inch of rain on Wednesday, which might have encouraged the long-distance travelers to look for shelter.

When birds encounter glass, they see the image it reflects rather than a hard surface; so when a building’s internal or external lights are left on over night—the latter being the case for the American National Insurance building—birds can easily get disoriented. Some might think it’s a place to rest, especially if they spy office plants inside, while others might just see a clear passage. Both can cause them to crash into windows or even the side of the building—often to a fatal end. After surviving a trek that takes them over hundreds of miles of land and open water, it’s an unjust end for the intrepid migrants.

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New Zealand’s mainland yellow-eyed penguins face extinction unless urgent action taken

University of Otago 16 May 2017; Photo Thomas Mattern)

Iconic Yellow-eyed penguins could disappear from New Zealand’s Otago Peninsula by 2060, latest research warns. Researchers call for coordinated conservation action.

In a newly published study in the international journal PeerJ, scientists have modelled factors driving mainland Yellow-eyed penguin population decline and are calling for action to reduce regional threats.

According to the researchers’ prediction models, breeding success of the penguins will continue to decline to extinction by 2060 largely due to rising ocean temperatures. But these predictions also point to where our conservation efforts could be most effective in building penguins’ resilience against climate change.

The Yellow-eyed penguin, classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), is a key attraction for New Zealand tourism. Yet, the chances of seeing the penguins in the wild are quietly slipping away, the new research suggests.

Lead study author Dr Thomas Mattern of the University of Otago says his team’s predictions are conservative estimates and do not include additional adult die-off events such as the one seen in 2013 in which more than 60 penguins died.

“Any further losses of Yellow-eyed penguins will bring forward the date of their local extinction,” Dr Mattern says.

If the recent poor breeding years — 2013 onwards — are included in the simulation of the future penguin population, things get progressively worse.

“When including adult survival rates from 2015 into the models the mean projection predicts Yellow-eyed penguins to be locally extinct in the next 25 years,” adds Dr Stefan Meyer, another of the co-authors.

The researchers note that Yellow-eyed penguins are iconic within New Zealand. Dr Mattern says these birds greet visitors to the country on billboards in all major airports, are featured on the NZ $5 note, and are widely used for branding and advertising.

“Yet despite being celebrated in this way, the species has been slowly slipping towards local extinction,” he says.

“It is sobering to see the previously busy penguin-breeding areas now overgrown and silent, with only the odd lonely pair hanging on,” says Dr Ursula Ellenberg, who has researched Yellow-eyed penguins for the past 14 years.

Increasing sea surface temperatures in part explain the negative trend in penguin numbers.

“The problem is that we lack data to examine the extent of human impacts, ranging from fisheries interactions, introduced predators to human disturbance, all of which contribute to the penguins’ demise,” says Dr Mattern.

“However, considering that climate change explains only around a third of the variation in penguin numbers, clearly those other factors play a significant role. Unlike climate change, these factors could be managed on a regional scale,” he says.

Professor Phil Seddon, Director of Wildlife Management at the University of Otago, says besides shining an alarming light on the state of the Yellow-eyed penguin on the New Zealand mainland, the study also underlines the importance of long-term data sets.

“In the current era of fast science, long-term projects have become a rarity. Without more than 35 years’ worth of penguin monitoring data we would probably be still at a loss as to what is happening to a national icon, the Yellow-eyed penguin,” Professor Seddon says.

Despite this urgency, Yellow-eyed penguins continue to drown as unintentional bycatch in nets set in penguin foraging areas, suffer from degradation of their marine habitat because of human activities, and die from unidentified toxins.

The authors conclude that “now we all know that Yellow-eyed penguins are quietly slipping away we need to make a choice. Without immediate, bold and effective conservation measures we will lose these penguins from our coasts within our lifetime.”

The guardians of Africa’s largest lake

shoebill.jpg(Louise Jasper 17 May 2017)

Locals are rallying together to protect Lake Victoria’s valuable wetlands and its inhabitants. The world’s largest tropical lake spans three countries and nourishes both the rich wildlife and the impoverished communities that live around it. But its resources have also attracted less desirable attention – such as traffickers targeting iconic birds such as the Shoebill.

As the sun rises over the Mabamba Bay Wetland on the northwestern shores of Lake Victoria, East Africa, a canoe slowly navigates a winding channel lined with papyrus and reeds. A light mist still clings to the water, and three tourists jump excitedly at every rustle, ripple and flutter of wings as they peer into the dense vegetation. Their guide Julius Musenda, a fisherman from the local village of Kasanje who knows the swamp like the back of his hand, keeps his sharp eyes peeled for the feathered prize they have all come to find.

Mabamba Bay is widely recognised as the best place to see the mysterious Shoebill Balaeniceps rex in Uganda, but a sighting is never guaranteed. Tension is mounting, they must soon return to land to catch their flight and time is growing short. There! He’s spotted one at last: an unmistakeable blue-grey bird with a massive bill and small white eyes, standing still as stone as it waits for its next meal to swim within range. As his clients gasp, focus their binoculars and snap away at their cameras, Julius smiles with relief. His clients will leave Uganda today happy and satisfied; a job well done.

Julius is a member of the Mabamba Bird Guides and Conservation Association, which is in turn part of the Mabamba Wetland Eco-Tourism Association (MWETA), along with two other Local Conservation Groups (LCGs). These community groups are run by volunteers who aim to conserve and sustainably manage the wetlands’ natural resources, and are part of a network of over 2,000 similar groups working at BirdLife Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) around the world.

The Shoebill and a range of other interesting wildlife such as the Blue Swallow Hirundo atrocaerulea, Papyrus Gonolek Laniarius mufumbiri and Sitatunga Antelope Tragelaphus spekii attract ever-increasing numbers of visitors to the swamp, providing vital income for the local people. So in 2013 and 2014 when wildlife traffickers began to target the Shoebill in Mabamba Bay for sale to zoos and private collectors, the community took swift and direct action to stamp out the trade.

The local people were able to act so quickly and confidently because they were well organised and aware of their rights and responsibilities as stewards of the wetland, which is an IBA protected under the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty that provides the framework for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands and their resources.. They also fostered close relationships with local law enforcement agencies and government bodies, and were able to rely on their support when the need arose.

Vitally, they had the motivation to protect their local patch from those who wished to exploit it for short-term gain. MWETA focused their conservation efforts through the creation of a sophisticated Community Action Plan, with assistance from Nature Uganda (BirdLife Partner in Uganda), which also helped them better understand the importance and value of their natural resources.

Mabamba Bay, like some other wetlands in the area, is not included in Uganda’s official protected area system. Its management therefore lies largely in the hands of local people and civil society organisations such as MWETA, who try to conserve it in the face of serious threats including poaching, pollution, invasive species and agricultural encroachment – problems also affecting the wider Lake Victoria Basin.

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Ravaged by deforestation – but a new refuge brings hope for the Cherry-throated Tanager

cherry_throated_tanager.jpg

(Alice Reisfeld 17 May 2017; Photo: Ciro Albino)

Over 85% of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest has been felled over the last few hundred years – but life continues to cling to the fragments that remain. A newly-created reserve will ensure that one of these fragments, along with the six globally-threatened birds it harbours, will endure for the foreseeable future

Just five hundred years ago, the Atlantic Forest formed a thick green blanket across the east coast of Brazil. Then settlers arrived from Europe, sparking one of the most terrifying rates of deforestation the world has ever seen.

Today, plantations and quarries stand where 88% of the Atlantic Forest once proudly stood. All that remains of this vital ecosystem today are scattered patches of degraded, fragmented forest.

The decimation of the Atlantic Forest is an ongoing tragedy for biodiversity. Despite only being a fraction of its former glory, the Atlantic Forest is still home to a huge number of plants and animals – enough, in fact, to rival the more famous Amazon. Even in its current state, new species are being discovered all the time in the fragments that remain – or in the case of the Critically Endangered (CR) Cherry-throated Tanager Nemosia rourei, rediscovered.

This colourful tanager was known only from a single shot specimen in 1870 for many decades, before its dramatic rediscovery in the 1990s. However, the species remains staggeringly rare, with an estimated global population of less than 200 adult birds. It may be that there are further populations out there skulking in as-yet unexplored fragments, but for now all we can do is protect the habitats that host the populations we do know about.

And this week, there was a major advancement on this front – the establishment of a 1,688 hectare refuge protecting one of the last strongholds of this beleaguered species. The newly-created Águia Branca Private Reserve now represents the second largest private protected area in the Brazillian state of Espírito Santo.

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Good grief! Losing a friend brings wild birds closer together

(Physorg, Oxford University 17 May 2017;Photo: Molly Harwood)

New Oxford University research has revealed that instead of grieving, wild birds appear to adjust to the loss of a flockmate by increasing both the number and intensity of their relationships with other birds.

Human impacts around the globe are causing increasing numbers of wild animal populations to decline. The effects of losing a mate, friend or group member on remaining animals’ social behaviour is currently little understood. The research newly published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, sought to improve our understanding of how wild animals cope with loss.

Scientists from Oxford University’s Department of Zoology tracked the social interactions between more than 500 wild great tits over winter, whilst temporarily removing birds from flocks at random. By doing so, the team were able to assess how wild birds respond to losing their flockmates, providing new insights into social behaviour which may also have valuable implications for conservation programs.

Lead author, Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr Josh Firth said: ‘We found that individual birds adapt to losing a flockmate by increasing not only the number and tightness of their social relationships to others, but also their overall connectedness within the social network of remaining individuals.’

Previous computational research has suggested that losing individuals may cause animal social systems to break down but the new findings suggest a brighter picture. If animals have the ability to adapt to the disruption caused by losing members of their group, important processes like information transmission may be maintained better than expected. In the same sense, strategies that focus on culling individual animals to prevent disease spread may be futile if the remaining animals respond by making new social links.

This research represents the first experimental test of how wild animal social networks respond to loss, and the findings share clear parallels with a recent study that looked at how losing a friend impacts human social networks. The human-based research used data from Facebook to show that following the death of a user friends of the deceased appear to become closer and increase their interactions over Facebook with each other.Dr Firth said: ‘Great tits are very sociable birds, and their relationships shape almost every aspect of their lives. A real benefit of studying these birds is that we can run experiments to test the principles of social behaviour. Interestingly, in this case the results appear surprisingly similar to what has been suggested for humans.’

‘Now we understand how birds adjust their social behaviour upon losing randomly chosen flockmates, we want to experimentally test the consequences of removing the key players and the most sociable individuals for conservation-related processes such as information and disease spread.’