Division of Bird Habitat Conservation

Birdscapes: News from International Habitat Conservation Partnerships


Harry Potter’s Owls
by Karen Foerstel, The Nature Conservancy

The much anticipated movie Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets features a wide variety of owls delivering mail for their wizard owners at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. “Muggles” (non-wizards) can see many of the same owls in forests and prairies across the United States, but growing threats to owl habitat, such as development and the loss of old growth forests, are making it ever harder to spot these stealth flyers.

There are 19 species of owls that inhabit North America, ranging from the tiny elf owl, which stands less than 6 inches tall, to the great gray owl, which reaches nearly 30 inches in height and has a wing span of about 50 inches. Scientists working to protect owls hope the Harry Potter craze will spark a renewed interest in conserving owl habitat across the country. “Human population growth and development are destroying the owls’ natural habitat in many places,” said Charles Duncan, an ornithologist with The Nature Conservancy (Conservancy), “and owl populations are on the decline due largely to habitat loss.”

The burrowing owl of the American Great Plains is listed among the Conservancy’s “Unlucky 13"—those grassland birds whose populations have declined to dangerously low levels in recent years. Burrowing owls, which nest in animal burrows and other ground crevices, are inextricably linked to the livelihood of ground insects and small mammals such as prairie dogs and ground squirrels. The recovery of this owl’s population hinges on sustaining the habitats of burrowing mammal populations.

The Conservancy also is working with Kevin Dodge and his students at Garrett College in western Maryland to monitor travel patterns of owls to better determine what lands should be protected to save these birds. During the fall months, the scientists set up mist nets for the nighttime capture and tagging of northern saw-whet owls lured in by tape recordings of the owl’s calls. Birds tagged in Maryland have been tracked to Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Maine.

Together with government agencies such as the USDA Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Conservancy is protecting landscapes that are most critical to declining bird populations. Owl lovers can visit Forest Service lands, national wildlife refuges, and Conservancy preserves across the country to observe these fascinating birds. Many of the Conservancy’s facilities conduct owl-sighting tours and educational programs year-round. One of the best places to spot owls is in Arizona at the Conservancy’s Ramsey Canyon Preserve, where seven species reside. Owls can even be seen in some of the country’s most cosmopolitan areas. The Conservancy’s New York chapter offers guided walks through Central Park where visitors can learn more about owls and, with a little luck, catch a glimpse of a wizard’s courier.

For more information, contact Karen Foerstel, The Nature Conservancy, 4245 North Fairfax Drive, Arlington, Virginia 22203, (703) 841-3932, kfoerstel@tnc.org.

A Lucky Test Flight
by Ben Ikenson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Sporting gangly legs and a long neck, the young chick awkwardly poised on a tiny island in a Florida marsh may not seem a significant presence, but it was the first nonmigratory whooping crane born in the wild in the United States since 1939 to fledge.

Success was confirmed on June 7, 2002, when the 87-day-old crane flew some 300 yards across a marsh in Leesburg, Florida, where it was hatched and reared. When his sibling was killed by a bald eagle, locals nicknamed the surviving chick "Lucky."

“Lucky’s flight is encouraging,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator Tom Stehn. “Flight ability is the most important asset for a bird to escape predators.”

The Kissimmee Prairie has hosted a nonmigratory whooping crane population since 1993. Each year, between 10 and 50 captive-raised birds are released here. From this population, four chicks have hatched in the wild: two in 2000; two in 2002. Lucky is the only survivor.

“Lucky is the first whooping crane to be raised in the wild by captive-reared parents,” said Steve Nesbitt, project leader for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “This validates the entire concept behind the captive-rearing approach to saving whooping cranes, which began at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland in the 1960s.”

Once believed to number more than 10,000 in the United States, whooping cranes historically wintered on the East Coast from New Jersey to Florida and along the Gulf Coast, and summered in Canada as far north as Hudson Bay. The birds were over-hunted and their nesting areas drained. In 1941, 15 remaining birds that wintered in Texas survived only because they summered in a remote area of a Canadian national park inaccessible to humans.

Recovery efforts have been slow but steady. Today, there are three main populations of whooping cranes in the wild, totaling 265 birds. There are also 131 birds in captivity, putting the species' entire population at 396.

“The backbone of recovery efforts is the Aransas/Wood Buffalo flock,” said Stehn. The flock is so named for the 2,500-mile sojourn it makes every April, from Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast to Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta and the Northwest Territories. This population now totals 173 birds. The second whooping crane population is the nonmigratory flock in Florida, consisting of 88 birds.

In the fall of 2001, biologists introduced a third flock of whooping cranes to the wild. Ultralight aircraft biologist/pilots gave eight birds their first lesson in migration, leading them from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge on Florida’s west coast. Five of the new flock's original eight survived the winter and returned on their own to central Wisconsin in the spring of 2002. Seventeen more juvenile cranes started the next migration led by ultralight in the fall of 2002.

Recovery biologists are encouraged by the appearance of the Florida population's newest flight-savvy recruit and are hopeful that Lucky will pass his fortune—and his fitness for survival—on to his descendants.

For more information, contact Steve Nesbitt, Biological Administrator, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 4005 South Main Street, Gainesville, Florida 32601, (352) 955-2230, steve.nesbitt@fwc.state.fl.us, or Tom Stehn, Whooping Crane Coordinator, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, P.O. Box 100, Austwell, Texas 77950, (361) 286-3559 extension 221, tom_stehn@fws.gov, or Brian Johns, Whooping Crane Coordinator, Canadian Wildlife Service, Prairie and Northern Wildlife Research Centre, 115 Perimeter Road, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan S7N 0X4, (306) 975-4109, brian.johns@ec.gc.ca.

Nonmigratory Whooping Crane Reintroduction Project Partners

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
U.S. Geological Survey
Canadian Wildlife Service
International Crane Foundation
Calgary Zoo
San Antonio Zoo

Learning by Doing
by Tildy La Farge, Ducks Unlimited, Inc.

One of the things we take for granted in the United States is access to practical training in resource management. In Latin America, a student interested in becoming an anthropologist or a biologist can get a degree at one of the universities with plenty of classroom training, but opportunities for hands-on experience are still scarce.

A highly successful program has emerged to fill this gap. It’s called RESERVA and it’s the first internationally focused, hands-on training program for natural resources professionals in Latin America.

This program is a joint enterprise among Ducks Unlimited de México (DUMAC), Ducks Unlimited, Inc., USDA Forest Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These partners, which have a history of working together on conservation projects in both the United States and Latin America, came up with the idea for this type of training program in the 1980s and officially opened the doors in 1989.

RESERVA brings professionals of many different disciplines together to show them how they can parlay their knowledge base into effective management of parks, reserves, and sanctuaries in their respective countries. The program is offered annually to professionals working for government agencies and nongovernmental organizations, and is held in Celestun, Yucatan, at the DUMAC headquarters.

To date, RESERVA has graduated 190 professionals from 22 countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa. During the course, students can participate in 13 training modules that focus on a variety of topics, including geographic information systems mapping, fundraising, agro-forestry, wetlands management and conservation, wildlife sampling, and modeling techniques.

“I believe the program’s success is rooted in the fact that a private, nonprofit organization and two federal agencies are working together to teach collaboration in the field. The business of resource management is highly collaborative on many levels. Now, we’re throwing international partnering into the mix, so it’s getting really interesting,” said Eduardo Carrera, DUMAC’s national director.

Cooperation and collaboration with natural resources conservation partners in Latin America and the Caribbean are essential for one reason: we share migratory species, particularly birds. If we are to sustain these resources for future generations, we must all work together.

Participation in this 2-month training course is determined through an application process. The cost of attendance is US$7,000, which includes airfare, lodging, meals, materials, and tuition. A limited number of full scholarships are available from the program for eligible students. The 2003 course is being held April-June.

For more information, contact Eduardo Carerra, Ducks Unlimited de Mexico, Avenida Vasconcelos 209 Ote, Residencial San Agustin, Garza Garcia, Nuevo Leon, Mexico C.P. 66260, (52) (818) 335-1212, ecarrera@dumac.org.

The Thornbirds
by John Cancalosi

For people who live in the wetter parts of the world, a trip to the arid lands of the Americas can seem like a journey to another planet. Vegetation is sparse and most of the plants present a forbidding arsenal of spines.

My introduction to cactus country came in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, where I had purchased a home. Here I found a welcoming committee of a host of spiny plants, which all too frequently impaled various parts of my body. How can animals, and for that matter photographers, such as myself, cope with the difficulties of living around cacti?

Gradually, I fell under the desert’s spell. I was fascinated most by the abundance of animal life. These creatures have found ways to solve the thorny problems presented by their environment. To some animals, cacti and other spiny plants are merely obstacles to be avoided, but others use them to their advantage. Birds are especially adept at living in prickly surroundings. Although some birds merely use a cactus as a convenient perch, others rely on these succulent plants for food and nesting sites and probably couldn’t survive without them. They have turned potential problems into opportunities.

Taking my cue from these savvy survivors, I focused my photographic efforts on the “thornbirds.” My travels were limited to areas of the American Southwest, where cacti occur most abundantly. Like the birds I photographed, I tried to turn adversity into advantage.

I did much of the photography from a convenient location—inside my house at the edge of the desert surrounding Tucson. I kept several lenses mounted on tripods near windows, using the drapes to create a blind. I apologize to those of you who prefer the romantic, hardship-driven image conjured up when you hear “wildlife photographer,” but window-watching works.

Not all images were captured so easily, however. Photographing raptors nesting in giant saguaro required considerably more effort. First, I had to find the remotely located nests. Then, I had to haul scaffolding, bit by bit, to erect a tower with a blind. I entered the blind at night and slept 30 feet above the desert floor. My tender flesh delighted the local vampires—blood-sucking cone-noses! These inch-long insect atrocities would pierce me nightly, gifting me with a nice collection of welts by morning.

Once, I was awakened in the middle of the night to the sound of an approaching thunderstorm. Hmmm. . .lightning, huge metal tower—my steel-trap mind sprang into action. I was sure I could find my way back to my truck in the dark. Wrong. After several hours of wandering aimlessly, watching for rattlesnakes and cacti, I was finally rescued by the Sun.

I learned a valuable lesson in photographing the thornbirds. I may be forced to deal with thorny problems in life, but with persistence, hard work, skill, and a little luck, things seem to work out. At an unexpected moment, a hawk lands on a nest to feed its young or a cactus wren sings atop a cholla—these moments never last long, but they are worth the wait and the struggle.

For more information, contact John Cancalosi at cancalosi@earthlink.net.

They’re in the Pink
by Jay Huner, University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Nancy Camel

One editor called them “neon beauties.” Many of Louisiana’s Cajuns call them “pink flamingos” or “Louisiana flamingos.” But, by any name, many consider the brilliantly colored roseate spoonbill the most gorgeous of the wading birds in the southeastern Atlantic and Gulf Coastal regions of the United States, despite the large, spatulate protuberance, otherwise known as a beak, emanating from its head.

In Louisiana’s Acadiana region, locals don’t bat an eye at herons, egrets, ibises, and storks. These populations are large and expanding, thanks to the half-million-acre rice, rice-crawfish, and crawfish agricultural wetland complex. The arrival of migratory spoonbills, on the other hand, attracts the attention of most everyone, not just avid birders.

Although a species of concern throughout Florida, the roseate spoonbill population in Louisiana has been expanding, with several hundred breeding pairs nesting in rookeries 30 to 70 miles inland, near Lafayette and Ville Platte. Post-breeding dispersal finds these spoonbills making their way to northeastern Texas, southeastern Oklahoma, northeastern Mississippi, and southwestern Tennessee.

The first reports of the spoonbills’ inland forays in Louisiana came in the late 1980s. Nesting activities were first noted in the early 1990s at The Nature Conservancy’s Cypress Island Preserve at Lake Martin near Lafayette and in a rookery on private property in the Miller’s Lake area, near Ville Platte.

Some spoonbills winter along Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, but as spring arrives, their numbers are reinforced by the northerly movement of their brethren from Texas and Mexico. During March and April, monogamous pairs will establish nesting territories within a rookery. The breeding ritual requires the male to present the female with sticks and twigs, from which she builds a large platform nest lined with greenery and dry matter. Both the male and female incubate the eggs, relieving each other two to three times daily, and both tend to the young. Semi-altricial chicks hatch after a 22- to 23-day incubation period. Young are flying 35 to 42 days later. During the nesting and rearing period, adults have been documented foraging 10 to 20 miles from their rookery.

Visitors to south-central Louisiana can count on seeing roseate spoonbills from late March into early July at the Cypress Island Preserve rookery. Elsewhere, crawfish ponds and ricefields at mile markers 40 through 46 on I-49 between Lafayette and Alexandria often host foraging spoonbills, sometimes numbering more than 100 birds. We should warn you, however—prepare yourself to be dazzled.

For more information, contact Jay Huner, Director, Crawfish Research Center, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, 1031 W. J. Bernard Road, St. Martinville, Louisiana 70582, (337) 394-7508, jhuner@louisiana.edu, or Nancy Camel, 10761 Misty Hollow Avenue, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70810, naturelvr@aol.com, or The Nature Conservancy of Louisiana at www.louisiananature.org.

Spoonbill: Up Close and Personal

Length: 32 inches
Wingspan: 50 inches
Weight: 3.3 pounds
Sexes: similar plumage
Eggs: two to three, white, dark spots and blotches
Habitat: marshes, tidal ponds, sloughs, and mangrove swamps
Diet: fish, crustaceans, insects, some aquatic plants

Woody’s Revival
by Richard King, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

They say the inspiration for “Woody Woodpecker” came to cartoonist Walter Lantz while honeymooning in the Sierra Nevada. I don’t know, but I’d be willing to bet that the inspiration really entered his subconscious much sooner, when in 1927 he traveled from his boyhood home of New York to his adopted home of Hollywood. If he passed through some of the Midwest’s savanna habitats, Lantz might have witnessed the antics of red-headed woodpeckers, which bear a remarkable resemblance to his imaginary pal.

Just like its animated cousin, everything about the red-headed woodpecker is loud. Its brilliant crimson-colored head sharply contrasts its snowy-white breast and charcoal-black back and wings. And all territorial invaders are greeted with a searing alarm reminiscent of Woody’s “Ha-Ha-Ha, Ha, Ha!”

The red-headed woodpecker drives off all invaders—robins, flickers, jays. It does not discriminate. Introduce an equally tyrannical foe, like the kingbird, and the conflict can escalate to a battle. These spectacles are played out in the arena of an open savanna, where the woodpecker’s aggressive nature is easily observed.

Unfortunately, these scenes are increasingly rare. Midwestern savannas are now limited to less than 1 percent of their former range, and this ecosystem is considered globally imperiled. One of the few places red-headed woodpeckers can still be seen in wide-open savannas is at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin. Refuge staff have already restored 500 acres of this rare habitat and are currently restoring 3,000 more acres. When completed, these restorations will have established the Midwest’s largest contiguous savanna.

The Sand County Foundation (Foundation) has worked with refuge staff to bring back the savannas. “Without the Foundation’s support, our savanna restoration work would not have been possible,” said Refuge Manager Larry Wargowsky.

The Foundation, through its Savanna Partnership, not only established plant-survey plots on restoration areas but also assembled a group of experts from across the country to review the refuge’s habitat work. “The refuge’s savanna restoration program is one of the Nation’s finest examples of adaptive management made possible through the partnering of private- and public-sector conservationists,” said Brent Haglund, Sand County Foundation president.

The refuge is taking restoration monitoring one step further by studying the habitat requirements of nesting red-headed woodpeckers. Only 1 year into the study, important discoveries have already been made. Most notably, red-headed woodpeckers will colonize an area immediately after an initial timber-thinning operation, which indicates that they will use habitats that only structurally resemble a savanna. This finding could have significant range-wide implications: the needs of red-headed woodpeckers could be incorporated into commercial-forest management. If across the woodpecker’s range, the practice of clear-cutting could be modified to leave a few scattered mature trees, red-headed woodpecker habitat would increase exponentially while having minimal impact on the overall revenue of each individual timber sale. If done range-wide, Woody may soon be coming to a neighborhood near you.

For more information, contact Richard King, Wildlife Biologist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, W7996 20th Street, West, Necedah, Wisconsin 54646, (608) 565-4402, richard_s_king@fws.gov.

What’s in a Name?
by Kenneth Damro, Traditional Nesters Research Project

Because it used large, hollow tree snags of the eastern forests in which to roost and nest, Chaetura pelagica found itself in an adapt-or-die situation with the arrival of Europeans. Settlers cleared forests to farm and erect towns. Fortunately, a settler’s home had one or more stone or brick chimneys—they weren’t hollow tree snags, but they would suffice. Its ability to adapt and use a new cavity structure gave the bird its common name: chimney swift.

These cavity dwellers seen swooping through the air never voluntarily touch ground nor are they able to perch. Chimney swifts bathe, drink, feed, and live most of their lives on wing. They gather nest sticks by clutching and breaking a single dead twig from a tree with their feet. The twig is transferred to the bill in flight and carried into a deep cavity, where it is glued with saliva to a stick nest attached to the cavity’s wall.

Studies show that the swift is declining throughout its range, possibly due to a steady decline of suitable masonry chimneys and air shafts. As old buildings are razed, crucial habitat is lost. Paul and Georgean Kyle, of the North American Chimney Swift Nest Site Research Project, have been working with lay scientists across the continent who build and monitor experimental nest boxes. The Kyles also have spawned efforts to save and/or restore old chimneys in cities—a new form of habitat conservation.

Though chimney swifts are considered urban nesters, there are small traditional nesting populations across the eastern United States. While the bird is not approaching near-extinction, the populations using native habitat may be. If we allow these populations to become extinct, a question arises: Can swift populations dependent on human dwellings reassociate with traditional habitat? Purple martins provide circumstantial evidence for the answer: there are no known traditional-nesting purple martin populations east of the Mississippi.

Because chimney swifts require roosting and nesting sites with an inside diameter of at least 11 inches and a depth of at least 6 feet, large, mature trees are important to this species. The Traditional Nesters Research Project’s goal is to survey for active swift nesting and roosting tree snags. Recording characteristics associated with an active snag and surrounding habitat is needed for management and conservation of traditional nesting chimney swifts. The project needs volunteer nest/roost searchers. This research is focused in Wisconsin and Upper Michigan; however, data from other states and Canada are welcomed.

Volunteers finding an active nest site will be asked to complete a detailed field report and tag the site so it can be field checked. Searchers should be able to identify chimney swifts, tree species, and habitat types; read and interpret topographical and plat maps; interpret swift behavior; estimate distance and height in meters; and tolerate biting insects. Searches take place from May through September. Volunteers are provided the necessary forms and guidance in searching for nests. Volunteers provide whatever else may be needed in the field—they will do it all in the name of the chimney swift.

For more information, contact Kenneth Damro, Traditional Nesters Research Project, P.O. Box 543, Florence, Wisconsin 54121, (715) 696-6630, traditionalnesters@yahoo.com, or Paul and Georgean Kyle, Driftwood Wildlife Association, North American Chimney Swift Nest Site Research Project, 1206 West 38th Street, Suite 1105, Austin, Texas 78705, (512) 266-3861, DWA@concentric.net.

We’re All Over the Map
by Carey Smith, Pacific Coast Joint Venture

The North American Waterfowl Management Plan’s (Plan) Pacific Coast Joint Venture just keeps on expanding. Of all the Plan’s habitat joint ventures, our boundaries now extend the farthest north, south, east, and west!

Last year the joint venture’s management board recognized the coastal area from San Francisco Bay to the Yukon River as an ecological continuum that shares migratory bird populations, coastal habitat types, and, consequently, similar resource problems and opportunities. In keeping with the 1998 Plan update’s theme of “Expanding the Vision,” the board moved to stretch the joint venture boundary north to Alaska’s Yukon River. This expansion encompasses five of the 1986 Plan’s “waterfowl habitat areas of major concern” and more closely aligns our boundaries with shorebird, waterbird, and landbird planning areas.

Since the expansion, Alaskan joint venture partners have contributed more than $13 million in matching funds to successfully compete for six National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Act (NCWCA) grants and four North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) grants, totaling $3.7 million. Partners used the funds to acquire about 50,000 acres of coastal wetlands habitats. Their most ambitious acquisition was a 42,000-acre addition to Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, which includes the largest eelgrass bed in the United States. The refuge is a crucial fall staging area for virtually the entire population of Pacific brant (150,000 birds) and emperor geese (55,000 birds). It also was among the first four U.S. sites designated as Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

The joint venture’s work in Alaska will help to provide nesting and migratory habitat for Alaskan waterfowl and shorebirds, but a limiting factor for several of these species is the availability of wintering habitat on Pacific islands. Many species, including the bristle-thighed curlew, golden plover, and wandering tattler, are dependent upon decreasing wetland habitats in the Hawaiian Islands. Historically, the islands had 71 taxa of endemic birds; 23 are now extinct, and 30 are listed as endangered or threatened. Six of those listed are endangered wetland-dependent species, with populations below 2,000 individuals: Hawaiian duck, Hawaiian coot, Hawaiian moorhen, Hawaiian stilt, Hawaiian goose, and Laysan duck. Predation by introduced species, invasion of nonnative vegetation, and habitat loss due to development are factors affecting their status. Some agricultural practices such as taro farming and aquaculture are wetland based, but they provide only marginal habitat.

In 2002, the Plan Committee endorsed the joint venture’s petition to allow a boundary expansion to include the Hawaiian Islands. Since then, Hawaiian partners have received three NCWCA grants and one NAWCA grant, totaling $2.1 million matched by $4.2 million in partner contributions. Partners will use the funds to acquire the third largest wetland on Maui and to restore more than 1,000 wetland acres on federal, state, and private lands on Oahu. In addition, the joint venture has purchased heavy equipment for a refuge and helped fund predator and wetland-management research and an interagency wetland workshop.

Although the joint venture has no immediate plans for further expansion, Pacific Rim Joint Venture has a nice ring to it.

For more information, contact Carey Smith, U.S. Pacific Coast Joint Venture Coordinator, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 9317 NE Highway 99, Suite D, Vancouver, Washington 98665, (360) 696-7630, carey_smith@fws.gov.