Magic from Isla Mocha: Pink-footed Shearwater conservation thru soccer and children’s theatre

PFSH1Many think of Pink-footed Shearwaters as a relatively common bird on West Coast pelagic trips. I like to call them the “photographer’s shearwater” because they invariably offer great photo ops off the back corner of the boat. But they are considered endangered by Chile, threatened by Canada, and vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They could easily be called the Chilean or even Isla Mocha Shearwater, as the entire world’s population comes from just three islands off the coast of Chile, 85% from Isla Mocha, and the remaining 15% from Santa Clara and Robinson Crusoe Islands in the Juan Fernandez group.

The very limited breeding range of the Pink-footed Shearwater is actually pretty typical of seabirds. To use some other West Coast species as examples, about half of the world’s Ashy Storm-Petrels come from one hillside on Southeast Farallon Island, 95% of the world’s Black-vented Shearwaters come from Isla Natividad off the Pacific Coast of Baja, and 99% of the world’s Heermann’s Gulls come from tiny Isla Rasa in the Sea of Cortez.

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New research (Felis et al 2019), following 42 satellite-tagged birds, describes their seasonal movements from their breeding colonies in Chile. The new paper focused on threats at sea, especially bycatch by purse seine and drift net fisheries in Peru and Chile. CLICK TO ENLARGE.

And, typical of most seabirds, Pink-footed Shearwaters face some daunting challenges at their breeding colonies. At Santa Clara Island, non-native European rabbits denuded native vegetation, caused erosion, and kicked the shearwaters out of their burrows. When the rabbits were eradicated in 2003, the number of shearwater pairs went up 40% in three years. Native plant revegetation continues. On Robinson Crusoe Island, cattle trampled burrows, but a fence installed in 2011 now serves to keep them away from the colony. Shout out to Oikonos (a non-profit based in California, Hawaii, and Chile) and the Chilean national park service (called Corporacion Nacional Forestal or CONAF) for these projects.

 

But the real conservation challenge is at the shearwater’s main colony on Isla Mocha. Here, the local fishing community of 800 people are accustomed to harvesting shearwater chicks from their burrows. They’ve done so since the community began in the 1930s. And each pair lays only one egg a year. Chick harvesting has been illegal since 1998, but enforcement within a small community where everyone is friend or family is difficult.

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Opening ceremonies of Copa Fardela soccer tournament.

Usually seabird restoration on breeding islands means restoring habitat or, more often, eradicating non-native rats, cats, mice, donkeys, you name it. But on Isla Mocha, Oikonos and CONAF have used another approach: outreach and education designed to reduce chick harvesting. The creative part is the strategy; the goal is for the islanders to identify with the shearwater as a symbol of their unique home, and thus want to protect them. Importantly, the project is led by a local Mochano, tapping into local values and local styles of communication. Thanks to the outreach efforts, school kids now flap their wings and enact dramas of the birds returning home. Adults play in the annual Copa Fardela (Shearwater Cup) soccer tournament.

This 48 minute video (in Spanish) documents the project. The Copa Fardela opening ceremonies, which features a children’s drama showing the shearwaters returning from the sea and producing a chick, begins around 42:00.

The fardela blanca, as they call it, is becoming their shearwater.

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Three-acre beach restoration project produces first nesting Snowy Plovers in nearly 70 years

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Pilot study area after three years of protection and restoration. Plant cover has gone from zero to 5% coverage, which offers enough cover for plover nests.

Sandy beach restoration is simple and effective. A three-acre pilot project at Santa Monica Beach by The Bay Foundation has lead to the first nesting by Snowy Plovers in Los Angeles region in nearly 70 years. This was in 2017. Since then, plovers have remained in the area but not yet re-nested.

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This tiny project demonstrated “restore it and they will come.”

In fact, only two acres were actively restored thru not much more than a sand fence to build up sand hummocks and the distribution of native plant seeds to encourage dune vegetation. Add a key final ingredient: the absence of people and “beach grooming” (raking by trucks dragging large rakes). The third acre, on the ocean side of the restored section, was left un-groomed, a rarity in southern California. This leaves the “seaweed” (aka beach wrack), home to invertebrates and food to shorebirds. The cessation of beach grooming  has already been correlated with an increase in shorebird foraging.

Furthermore, a new native plant species, or possibly a rare variant, was discovered at the site, having germinated on its on. For a very detailed report on the project, see the project website.

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Snowy Plovers, a state and federally listed species, nest on sandy beaches, often putting them in conflict with human recreation.

 

Two of the nation’s top birding spots threatened by the wall

Of the top 20 birding sites in the entire United States, based on the number of species reported on eBird, six of them are in south Texas. Two of them, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, are threatened by Trump’s proposed wall.

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The map above, taken from an excellent article illustrating all of the natural resources at risk from California to Texas, includes the bird totals for the eBird hotspots associated with the at-risk parks and wildlife refuges. The wall is often constructed hundreds of yards north of the actual border (the Rio Grande River). It typically includes a swath of cleared land on each side of it.  At Bentsen and Santa Ana, the wall threatens to destroy critical remaining habitat and strand the parks in “no-man’s land”, preventing public access. Dozens of articles have been written regarding the impacts to everything from butterflies to ocelots.

Sabal Palm is unique, in that the natural area is south of the wall. Visitors pass thru the wall in order to visit the park. However, there is no guarantee this arrangement will be made at other sites. Should public access be denied at Bentsen, the park could revert back to the Bentsen family per a historical agreement. The national wildlife refuges are especially at risk. As they are already federal properties, the Administration doesn’t have to deal with acquiring private property. Thus, they are the easiest places to build.

 

 

The decline of Mountain Plovers in two graphs

I live in Yolo County, California, near Sacramento, where Mountain Plovers used to be an annual winter specialty. Searching for “dirt clods with legs”, we used to be able to find dozens of these unique shorebirds, sometimes over a hundred.

Those days are over. They are now “irregular”, meaning we don’t find them every year. We’ve struck out five of the last eleven years. Before that, we averaged a high count of 72 individuals. The first graph, built from records in the Yolo Audubon Society newsletter, emails to the Central Valley Birds listserv, and eBird, shows the high count each winter in Yolo County.

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MOPL Yolo

This second graph backs out a bit in space and time, looking at all Mountain Plovers worldwide, starting in 1980. They are a bird of the steppe, breeding mostly on the Great Plains between the Rockies and the flat lands, between the Canadian and Mexican borders. They winter in open country in a vast arc west and south of there, mostly in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.

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All the Christmas Bird Counts nationwide, plus Mexico, averaged 728 birds per count thru 1994, but have never hit that mark since. Fewer than 200 individuals have been enumerated six of the last ten years. Adjusted for party hours, the graph basically looks the same.

How to stop birds from flying into your windows

Window strikes kill hundreds of millions of birds each year. It’s a terrible feeling when you’ve set up a feeder just so you can watch the birds and it becomes a death trap, luring birds into food, only to be followed by a sharp “thunk” against your window, resulting in a stunned and sometimes dead bird.

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My falcon decals look great from the inside, but they are nearly impossible to see from the outside. Since they don’t move, they don’t attract attention. They did little to stop window strikes.

Here I present one solution from my backyard. The key is something in front of the window that allows the birds to see it and realize what it is. Moving objects, like ribbons that move in the wind, work best. Still objects, like falcon decals and plastic owls, work poorly. Additionally, the maximum range of effect of a window marker is only about 18 inches. I’ve had birds hit my window within 18 inches of the falcon decoy.

Here is my solution, which is quite effective. Tack a shiny ribbon to the top middle of each window, hanging down most of the length of the window.  I had a name brand mylar ribbon designed for the purpose (probably a Father’s Day gift), but any shiny ribbon will probably work. There are other similar brands on Amazon. The key is that it moves in the slightest breeze, reflecting off and revealing the window behind it.

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This 8-second video illustrates how the slightest wind moves the ribbons, making the windows apparent. Note the falcon decals are still there, just hard to see.

Finally, here’s a view from inside the house with the ribbons in place. From the inside, they are much less noticeable than the decals. From the outside, it’s a different story.

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Another thing to experiment with is the placement of your feeders. I once hung a thistle feeder very near the windows. This resulted in several goldfinch deaths, as they tend to flush from the feeder in a fast direct flight. I moved the feeder back ten feet, which made a huge difference, apparently giving them time to see their options while flushing.

Birders detect dramatic changes as Davis climate warms

[A version of this was originally published in the Davis Enterprise.]

In 2002, the cover of The New York Times Magazine featured a silhouetted man standing on frosty mauve ice and staring through binoculars into a rosy polar sky. The title read, davis1“Watching the World Melt Away: The future as seen by a lonely scientist at the end of the earth.” The article was about seabird biologist George Divoky and his decades of work studying the black guillemot, a high arctic seabird, on Cooper Island off the coast of Barrow, Alaska. The guillemots were struggling to feed their chicks. Their preferred food, Arctic cod, lived at the edge of the sea ice. In the past, this was five miles from the island. Now it was thirty. Divoky, moreover, found himself sharing his tiny island with several hungry polar bears stranded by the vast expanse of open water. At the time, the story was one of the first concrete examples of climate change impacting an ecosystem in way that was easily seen and understood.

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Sixteen years later, birders in Yolo County are now witnessing those kinds of changes at our latitude. Winters are suddenly filled with species previously associated with warmer climates to the south, while some other winter visitors no longer come this far south. In the summer, new species are arriving from more arid regions and have started nesting locally.

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Orchard Oriole in Davis, December 2017

A shift of a few degrees may not seem like much, but a winter above freezing makes autumn fruit and berries available longer, resulting in a plentiful food supply. This past December, birders were astounded to find eight species of warblers and three species of orioles in the county at once. Normal would be three and zero, respectively. These birds are neotropical migrants, spending the summer nesting in the northern United States and Canada, and wintering in Southern California, Mexico, or Central and South America. In the last few years, Cassin’s vireos, black-throated gray warblers, and blue-gray gnatcatchers have been present at many locations throughout the cold months. It is now possible to find hooded orioles and western tanagers year-round. Last winter, rarities like orchard oriole, northern waterthrush, and palm warbler turned up and stayed for weeks or months. The prevalence of unusual over-wintering migrants has enabled birders to rack up quite a winter list. Holly Coates shattered previous “big year” records by tallying 200 species in Yolo County by March 20 this year.

neotrop migrants graphThe Putah Creek Christmas Bird Count, an annual effort to count all the birds in a 15-mile diameter circle near Winters on one day each December, has tracked winter bird populations since 1971. In recent years, the number of neotropical migrants found on the count has swelled. These include warbling vireo and Wilson’s and Townsend’s warblers, in addition to the species mentioned above. Perhaps the most dramatic shift in the count data has been with the turkey vulture. With the absence of tule fog, these birds, which rely on warm thermals to give them some lift, have gone from sparse, rarely more than 15 birds on a count through 1985, to over 150 individuals per count in each of the past eight years.

turkey vulture graphA warming climate is expected to create more increases than decreases in bird life in Yolo County. This is because species diversity is greatest in the tropics. As bird ranges shift north, we expect to see more arrivals than departures. Among the departures are some northern species that are growing scarcer in winter. Most notable is rough-legged hawk, a tundra species that journey south to agricultural areas to eat rodents in winter. They have, however, become decidedly hard to find in recent years, perhaps finding the Willamette Valley and other more northern valleys suitable for their wintering grounds. Another species to watch is the beautiful cedar waxwing, which descend on fruits and berries in the winter months. The more they can find food in the north, the less likely they will come this far south.  They are erratic from year to year, however, so it is too early to identify a trend.

Though less dramatic, our hotter summers have brought some changes as well. Great-tailed grackles have expanded up the Central Valley from the Salton Sea. Say’s phoebes, which previously nested only south of the Delta in the Central Valley, moved into Napa and Solano Counties in 2014. Perhaps they are focusing on certain species of insects. This spring, Michael Perrone found them nesting in Davis and Joan Humphrey discovered them feeding young in Woodland, representing first nesting records for the county.

The Yolo Audubon Society is currently revising its Checklist of the Birds of Yolo County, a useful little booklet that will list all 369 species recorded in the county, each with a bar chart showing their abundance through the year. The last version, published in 2004, had a special section called “Recent Changes” highlighting the wetland restoration projects at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area and Davis Wetlands. In the coming 2018 version, the Recent Changes section will focus on two big issues: the expansion of orchards and our changing climate. Perrone, author of that section, states that “winters have become milder. In particular, prolonged periods of cold, all-day tule fog have ceased, giving way to sunnier weather.” Davis birders may not be standing on the edge of the continent looking at retreating sea ice, but nevertheless, in the last few years they have witnessed dramatic changes in bird distributions. A look at the graphs, moreover, suggests these changes began before that article about Alaska was published.

The recovery of the Bald Eagle: An Endangered Species Act success story

In the latter parts of the 1900s, the Bald Eagle faced extirpation in the Lower 48 from low reproduction. This was caused by their uptake of DDT from the fish they ate. The DDT caused their egg shells to be so thin they broke when they sat on them. For anyone with chickens, you know how variable eggshell thickness is, how much they vary depending on the birds’ diet and if they are getting enough calcium. Too thin and the eggs break; too thick and the chicks can’t break out.

BAEA recovery

Thanks to the Endangered Species Act, signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1973 back when the Republican Party considered conservation a conservative idea, the eagles are returning. They now nest in lakes even around downtown Los Angeles. In some highly polluted areas, such as the waters between Los Angeles and the islands off southern California, eggshells are only just now returning to normal. Everywhere across the Lower 48, the eagles are coming back. The battle is not over. The Republicans today are trying to overhaul the Endangered Species Act, which could again put this great bird at risk.