Dr. Jeff Wells is the Senior Scientist for the Boreal Songbird Initiative. During his time at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and as the Audubon Society's National Conservation Director, Dr. Wells earned a reputation as one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists. He is now dedicated to understanding and protecting the land where North America's birds are born and raised, the Boreal Forest of Canada and Alaska. Check back regularly to read Dr. Wells' perspectives on the conservation, migration and interesting habits of Boreal birds.
Posted by David at April 22nd, 2013 Permalink | Comments: no responses Trackback URL for this post: http://www.borealbirds.org/blog/wp-trackback.php?p=1317
Last Thursday world-renowned conservationist J. Michael Fay came to Seattle at our invitation to talk about some of the emerging mining threats to the remote northwestern corner of British Columbia. The area was mostly untouched by human development until the past several years until an enormous number of large-scale mining projects, driven by rising gold prices, began to emerge on this pristine landscape. Mike described the region as one of the largest emerging mining complexes anywhere on Earth, which lies directly upstream from his cabin and some of Alaska’s most important fisheries.
Michael speaks to the crowd at the Seattle event Credit: Lane Nothman
The talk was not only well attended, but well delivered. Mike used a series of photos and video to help tell the story of how a remote and extremely beautiful region of BC was undergoing massive industrial changes that will likely forever scar this once-pristine landscape.
Rather than tell his story on his behalf, we’ll let you hear it directly from Mike himself. He was interviewed Saturday morning on the ever-hip Seattle radio station KEXP. Watch the video below of his live interview:
Posted by David at April 11th, 2013 Permalink | Comments: one response Trackback URL for this post: http://www.borealbirds.org/blog/wp-trackback.php?p=1306
Aerial view of rivers converging in NW British Columbia. Credit: Michael Fay
We here at the Boreal Songbird Initiative (BSI) are proud to host internationally renowned conservationist J. Michael Fay on a speaking tour about a new ‘gold rush’ of mining development in the otherwise-remote northwestern corner of B.C. and the impacts it could have on coastal salmon and wildlife.
West Coast Environmental Law will be hosting the Vancouver leg of his speaking tour on Monday, April 15th and we (BSI) will be hosting the Seattle discussion on Thursday, March 18th. You can find the specifics about the tour and venue information here:
Michael Fay has spent much of his professional career in and out of Africa. A six-year stint in the Peace Corps as a botanist in Tunisia and the Central African Republic led him to this wild yet increasingly-developed continent. Upon joining the Missouri Botanical Garden he returned to Africa, and it was on this trip that he became inspired to complete his Ph.D. on western lowland gorillas.
He has since gone on to become one of the world’s most well-known conservationists and has played a prominent role in numerous high-profile events, including walking the more than 2000-mile corridor of intact forest blocks between Congo and Gabon, hosting then-Secretary of State Colin Powell on a rainforest tour in Gabon to commence a new multimillion dollar conservation program and completing the Megaflyover, an eight month aerial survey of Africa which catalogued more than 116,000 images – some of which are visible on Google Earth.
Michael Fay Credit: Michael Fay
While Africa may be his primary home and focus, he now finds himself amidst—perhaps unintentionally at first—one of the ecologically critical yet under-recognized conservation issues in North America.
When Michael purchased a small cabin on the Unuk River just north of Ketchikan, Alaska, he thought he would be able to find solace away from the very development he’d spent the better part of his life studying. Instead, he found himself downstream of one of the newest and most rapidly-developing mineral exploration regions in North America. A number of large-scale mines were being planned and proposed throughout northwestern British Columbia, directly upstream of some of Southeast Alaska’s most important salmon-bearing rivers.
He was equally surprised to find out that not only were these large projects moving forward, but that there was little to no long-term planning at a regional scale to ensure development be carried out sustainably and in the interest of the nearby affected communities. Areas were being staked with the click of a mouse, nearby communities—particularly Aboriginal communities—were not being properly consulted, and the rights to the minerals below the ground often trumped either private property or traditional rights on the land above.
Contamination leakage at the Old Brucejack Mine in British Columbia. Credit: Michael Fay
Michael is concerned about both the pace and scale of mining expansion in this scenic and otherwise pristine region. He fears the repercussions of this new ‘gold rush’ could impact not just local communities and wildlife in B.C., but downstream communities on either side of the border – many of which are already dealing with depleted fisheries and struggling to balance vibrant economies with sustainable harvest levels. He will share his stories, as well as some amazing photographs and video, from his experiences in the region.
A question one might ask is: why is an international bird organization hosting an event about transboundary mining and salmon issues?
The answer is perhaps more simple than it is complex. We are concerned about the global impacts of development in Canada’s boreal forest, whether in relation to birds, climate change, transboundary rivers, wildlife or others.
The three to five billion migratory birds that breed in the boreal each summer are just one of many global, ecological ‘exports’ the boreal forest produces (click to enlarge)
Map credit: Boreal Songbird Initiative
The phrase “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” may be fitting for that particular nightlife-driven city, but that notion could not be more opposite when discussing Canada’s boreal forest. The billions of birds that breed in the boreal migrate south throughout the United States and as far south as the Tierra del Fuego. The emissions released from developing the carbon-rich boreal forest pose a threat to the entire planet. The thousands of still-pristine rivers that originate in the boreal drain into oceans and seas we all share. The mines that are opened, extracted and left—often for decades—in various states of disrepair have real consequences for the wildlife and communities downstream.
As such, we are deeply concerned that unchecked mining development in northwestern British Columbia could leave an irreversible footprint on local and migratory wildlife, from salmon and migratory fish to the bears and the birds on either side of the border.
So we hope those of you near the Seattle or Vancouver areas will join us in learning more!
Posted by Jeff at April 4th, 2013 Permalink | Comments: 2 responses Trackback URL for this post: http://www.borealbirds.org/blog/wp-trackback.php?p=1289
Taiga Fox Sparrow Credit: Andrew Aldrich
I recently posted on the Maine Birding listserv a simple request for a Fox Sparrow photo I needed for a project and was amazed by the results. I received photos from 9 people from a variety of places around Maine. Rather than letting these offers go unused I thought I would post below all of the great photos I received (including the one above). Each photographer is credited below the image.
The Fox Sparrow is a large, bulky sparrow that, over its North American range shows great variability with as many as 18 different subspecies recognized by some authorities. The most widespread form occurs almost exclusively in the Boreal Forest region of North America. This form is sometimes called the “taiga” form and shows the brightest reddish plumage of any of the subspecies. The bulk of these birds winter in the southeastern U.S. with small numbers wintering north into the northern U.S. The diversity of Fox Sparrow subspecies reaches its pinnacle in the western U.S. with at least 10 of the 18 subspecies documented from British Columbia. These western forms are generally darker than the “taiga” form some looking sooty or slate gray. Here’s a photo for comparison:
Sooty Fox Sparrow
One form called the “thick-billed” form occurs in mountainous areas from Oregon south through California and just into Baja Mexico and, as its name suggests, it has a massive bill. Here is that subspecies:
Thick-billed Fox Sparrow
I was just out in the San Francisco Bay area for a visit and saw the so-called “sooty” form which breeds along the coast of Alaska and British Columbia south to northwest Washington State and winters along the Pacific coast to California. A fourth recognizable form is called the “slate-colored” Fox Sparrow and it breeds in the Rocky Mountain region from British Columbia south to Nevada.
In the eastern U.S. and southeastern Canada, Fox Sparrows are migrating through and in many regions they don’t stay long and don’t occur in very large numbers so people really enjoy having an opportunity to see them and marvel at the beautiful reds and grays in their plumage. We’ve reported here before about some of the parts of the Boreal Forest where Fox Sparrows nest that have received protection. One very large area of the “taiga” Fox Sparrow’s breeding range that is still in question is the Peel River Watershed in the Yukon. The Yukon government set up a Peel Watershed Planning Commission which worked over many years and with many public meetings to develop a series of recommendations for this incredible 16 million acre region. In November 2011 the Commission released its final recommendations which called for protection of over 13 million acres of the watershed from mining and other industrial development. You can bet that there are an awful lot of Fox Sparrows whose nesting areas would be safe there! Unfortunately the Yukon government has signaled its intention to protect only a small fraction of the region and keep large areas open for mining despite the Commission’s recommendations.
Enjoy the photos and if you want to learn more about the Peel River visit www.protectpeel.ca
Thanks to all the photographers who so graciously let us post their photos!
Posted by Jeff at March 22nd, 2013 Permalink | Comments: no responses Trackback URL for this post: http://www.borealbirds.org/blog/wp-trackback.php?p=1285
I just came across some relatively new papers I had not seen that shared some eye-opening new facts about migratory connectivity in some northern birds. A paper published in 2012 describes the results of a project that placed geo-locators (small devices that record day length information which can be used to calculate geographic location) on Rusty Blackbirds nesting in Alaska. Although only three of the 17 birds with geo-locators were recaptured, those three birds yielded valuable information about the timing and location of migration. All three of the birds crossed over from southcoastal Alaska to the Canadian Prairie Provinces and then moved south to winter in the Midwest U.S. with one wintering south to Louisiana. They followed a similar route back north in spring.
Another paper published in 2012 used the same technology to track where Golden-crowned Sparrows wintering along the central California coast were spending their summers. Researchers they placed geo-locators on 33 birds of which four were recaptured the following year. All four birds had summered along the Gulf Coast of Alaska.
For me the most surprising fact came from yet a third paper on this topic published in 2012, this one about Snow Buntings. The researchers in this case reviewed evidence of migratory connectivity from banding returns, stable isotope analysis, and from placing geo-locators on Snow Buntings breeding in the East Bay Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Nunavut north of Hudson Bay. They found that birds breeding at East Bay migrated west of Hudson Bay and wintered in southern Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta and in North Dakota. The results that were most shocking to me though were that many of the Snow Buntings that we see in Maritime Canada and New England are traveling to Greenland for the summer!
Posted by David at January 14th, 2013 Permalink | Comments: 2 responses Trackback URL for this post: http://www.borealbirds.org/blog/wp-trackback.php?p=1267
Member of the George River caribou herd Credit: Valerie Courtois, Canadian Boreal Initiative
Over the holidays Jeff posted a new guest blog on National Geographic about the plight of the George River caribou herd in northern Quebec and Labrador. This herd, once the largest in the world just decades ago, has plummeted to dangerously low numbers of late, causing concern among the Aboriginal people who have subsided off them for generations and scientists alike. Here’s a short exerpt below – be sure to check out the full post on National Geographic if you want to know more!
It was once our largest caribou herd, and one of the biggest herds of large migratory mammals anywhere in the world. The George River caribou of northern Quebec and Labrador were surpassed in numbers perhaps only by Africa’s wildebeest. But now their population is perilously small—about 4 percent of its peak. Although migratory caribou, also called reindeer, are known for wide swings in population size, encroachment of industrial development into their habitat puts these animals at increasing risk.
In the late 1940s, the George River caribou herd may have declined to as few as 3,500 animals, and in 1958, a careful census estimated its numbers at 15,000. Historically, when the herd reached these low points, many of the Innu, Cree, and Inuit people, who lived in what is now northern Quebec and Labrador, died from starvation. But the George River caribou herd rebounded with amazing vitality, reaching an astonishing 775,000 animals by 1993, ranging over an area larger than France.
Posted by David at December 6th, 2012 Permalink | Comments: one response Trackback URL for this post: http://www.borealbirds.org/blog/wp-trackback.php?p=1262
We received permission from Fletcher Smith of the Center for Conservation Biology to post the following update about Hope, a Whimbrel whose migration has been tracked via satellite for the past several years. We thank Hope for her years of service in helping to understand Whimbrel migration and wish her a happy retirement. You can read our first two posts about Hope here and here. – David
Hope is released after the non-working transmitter was removed by local bird expert Lisa Yntema. Credit: Fletcher Smith
Hope, a Whimbrel carrying a satellite transmitter, has been captured and the non-working satellite transmitter on her removed. The bird has been tracked by a team of researchers led by the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University (CCB) through her migratory travels since she was captured on Box Tree Creek in Northampton County, Virginia on 19 May, 2009. Since that time she has traveled more than 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers) back and forth 4 times between breeding grounds on the Mackenzie River Delta in the Northwest Territories of Canada and her wintering territory on Great Pond, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. She arrived this year at Great Pond in early September and shortly afterwards her signal was lost. It became apparent through photographs taken by local bird researchers that the antenna had fallen off of the transmitter. A CCB biologist (with assistance from local researchers) captured Hope on 20 November, 2012 and removed the transmitter. The unique alpha-numeric leg bands were left on the bird and Hope was resighted in her territory by local bird expert Lisa Yntema on 28 November.
Great Pond, Hope’s winter home for at least the last four winters, is a 50 hectare mangrove wetland located on the southeast coast of St. Croix. The area is designated as an Important Bird Area by Birdlife International and supports at least 72 bird species during some portion of their life cycle. These include locally rare breeding birds such as the Least Tern and Wilson’s Plover and many migrant shorebird species besides Whimbrels. Great Pond and the adjacent East End Marine Park are managed by the Division of Fish and Wildlife, Department of Planning and Natural Resources, U.S. Virgin Islands, who collaborated with and provided logistical support to CCB in the trapping of Hope.
Hope has taught the research community a great deal about the migratory pathways and habits of Whimbrels. Her high fidelity to breeding, wintering, and migration sites shows the importance of each stage of the life cycle in conserving Whimbrels and other shorebirds. An incident in the fall of 2011 highlights the importance of these safe stopover sites, when Hope and Machi (also a Whimbrel) were tracked during fall migration. Both flew through Tropical Storm Maria, with Hope landing in protected lands on St. Croix, and Machi landing in Guadeloupe, an island known for unregulated shorebird hunting. Hope made it through the storm safely, as did Machi, but Machi was shot and killed just minutes upon her arrival to Guadeloupe.
Hope is one of two dozen birds that have been tracked in a collaborative effort between The Center for Conservation Biology, The Nature Conservancy, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Georgia Department of Natural Resources Non-game Division, Canadian Wildlife Service, Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, and Virginia Coastal Zone Management designed to discover migratory routes that connect breeding and winter areas and to identify migratory staging areas that are critical to the conservation of this declining species.
The Center for Conservation Biology
The College of William and Mary/Virginia Commonwealth University
Posted by Jeff at November 16th, 2012 Permalink | Comments: one response Trackback URL for this post: http://www.borealbirds.org/blog/wp-trackback.php?p=1253
Credit: D. Faucher, Ducks Unlimited
Every other year on average, boreal breeding finches and sometimes other birds as well, push further south in late fall and winter into parts of the United States. This year is already shaping up to be a major “invasion” year for these birds in the eastern U.S. with some species already having been spotted as far south as Georgia! One of the most mysterious of these northern finches is the Evening Grosbeak and recently an excellent and interesting story about Evening Grosbeaks was posted on the American Bird Association’s blog (of which I contributed). You can see the full article here.
Also, it may not be new but we recently stumbled across a fascinating underwater video showing Common Eiders diving for food in the Arctic. Quite the view indeed!
Posted by David at October 10th, 2012 Permalink | Comments: 2 responses Trackback URL for this post: http://www.borealbirds.org/blog/wp-trackback.php?p=1242
The following is a guest post by Christian Artuso of Bird Studies Canada. Over the past few years he has been helping to organize and develop the Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas, a comprehensive outlook of which birds breed in Manitoba and where. As Christian mentions below Manitoba has an extremely low population density, making the extraordinary volunteering efforts for the project by everyday people even more impressive. If you happen to reside in Manitoba they are always looking for more volunteers! Here’s a link to sign up.
Christian also operates his own blog in addition to a wildlife photography website in case you want to see more of Christian’s great work. He was also kind enough to share some thoughts and photos from his trip up to Pimachiowin Aki last year, which can be found here.
Highlights of the Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas to date
After only three years of fieldwork (2010, 2011, 2012), the Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas (www.birdatlas.mb.ca) is already turning up plenty of surprises. This post offers a glimpse into what we are finding thanks to:
870 registered volunteers, who have put in
over 21,000 hours of survey effort consisting of
over 160,000 records of
287 species breeding in
over 2100 atlas grid squares (a grid square is 10 km X 10 km)
and with over 16,000 point counts in over 1,100 squares….
For a “small” province like Manitoba (in terms of human population), chalking up this much effort is a phenomenal achievement and we have two more years to go to get even better!
Some of the biggest highlights to date have been confirming four species breeding in the province for the very first time! In 2010, Ken De Smet found a nest of Black-headed Grosbeak and David Raitt confirmed breeding Western Tanagers for the first time in Manitoba. The two photos below are ones I took recently in Manitoba. All the photos in this blog post are mine but you can view the photos of other atlassers here.
In 2011, Ken De Smet found Manitoba’s first nest of Snowy Egret and apparently only the second breeding record in Canada. The nest was at Whitewater Lake where I took this photo.
In 2012, there was a rash of Long-tailed Jaeger reports. I found three pairs near Schmock Lake just south of the Nunavut border (photos below) and Joel Kayer and Ken De Smet found a nest at Nejanilini Lake – the first confirmed breeding in our province!
There were some other great finds too; for example, the Wapusk National Park survey team (a joint effort of Parks Canada and the Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas) found three Golden Eagle nests along the Broad River. These are the first confirmed Golden Eagle nests in Manitoba in over half a century although there are other unconfirmed reports.
This male Lazuli Bunting has been on the same territory in southwestern Manitoba for three years in a row. Unfortunately, we have yet to confirm breeding although there have now been some sightings of a female.
In addition the headline makers, the atlas has produce a plethora of excellent nesting records from many out of the way places. These two photos show a Red-throated Loon and nest – this nest I found this summer was the first of two found to date.
A study of the maps (found here) will reveal that the atlas has turned up many species further north of their expected breeding ranges. You can compare these maps with published range maps of species such as…
Some waterbirds such as American White Pelican (found well north of known colonies) and others like Red-winged Blackbird have been found further north than expected. What we don’t know is how much of this represents northward expansion or just lack of previous data in remote areas.
A suite of species normally associated with deciduous woods or mixed forest along the aspen parkland to southern boreal transition zone such as Eastern Bluebird, American Woodcock, Eastern Whip-poor-will, and Black-and-white Warbler (photos below) have also been found further north than is indicted in guidebooks. One possible explanation may be related to habitat change associated with human land clearance in the boreal that has enabled disturbance adapted deciduous trees (especially poplar family members such as Trembling Aspen) to colonise areas following human disturbance, resulting in movement corridors for deciduous forest species. In other areas, however, we have found these species in the north in relatively undisturbed areas such as Black-and-White Warblers along the God’s River and even as far north as York Factory!
The atlas has documented a better picture of both Northern Parula and Pine Warbler (photos below) which are typically thought of as occurring only in extreme southeastern Manitoba but which we now know have small breeding populations in the Interlake region.
Some boreal forest birds also seem to be moving north including Winter Wren and Brown Creeper. Both of these species have now been recorded several times in the Churchill area.
The atlas is not just finding northern movements however. Some species such as Bonaparte’s Gull have been documented further south than previously thought. This is a juvenile Bonaparte’s Gull shown here. Other species such as Tundra Swan, Northern Shrike and Pine Grosbeak have also been recorded south of their typical ranges.
The atlas is also gathering a lot of much needed data on species that are poorly known or for which there is anecdotal evidence of decline. For example, Smith’s Longspur, Lapland Longspur and Harris’s Sparrow (photos below) have all become much more difficult to find in the Churchill area in recent years. Nonetheless, the atlas has been documenting these species in reasonable numbers elsewhere in the north.
The atlas is procuring fantastic documentation on Species At Risk in our province and working hard to augment the Manitoba Conservation data Centre. This juvenile Rusty Blackbird (just out of the nest) is one example of many Species At Risk records the atlas has documented to date. Rusty Blackbird is listed as Special Concern.
In some cases, we have special projects occurring within the larger atlas framework. This includes the ongoing Bird Studies Canada Golden-winged Warbler Project I began in 2008 thanks to the Walter Siemens Memorial Fund. Golden-winged Warbler (photo below) is listed as Threatened. Other researchers also share distributional and nesting data with the atlas.
And then of course there are the hundreds of personal stories that make the atlas what it is. You can read about many of these stories in the various issues of the atlas newsletter (found here). I will leave you with one of my favourite magic moments from atlassing in northern Manitoba – this young Boreal Owl that I found (along with other family members) near Shamattawa, Manitoba.
To learn more about the atlas, you can contact me by email at: cartuso AT birdscanada DOT org or phone 1-800-214-6497 and ask for the Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas. Thank you!
Posted by Jeff at October 5th, 2012 Permalink | Comments: no responses Trackback URL for this post: http://www.borealbirds.org/blog/wp-trackback.php?p=1240
A few mornings ago I stepped out the front door of my house in Maine. It was 5 AM and still dark outside but the sky was echoing with the flight calls of migratory birds. Rainy, foggy weather was causing migrating birds arriving from further north to come down to land as their neared the dawn and the end of their long night of flying. Most of the birds probably nested or were raised in the Boreal Forest of Canada this past summer. Using my iPhone I made a 5 minute recording of what it sounded like and which you can listen to at the link below. With the volume up high and with decent speakers or earphones/headphones (and no distracting sounds) you should be able to hear the plaintive “toow” of Hermit Thrushes, the spring peeper like sounds of Swainson’s Thrushes plus lots of the lispy calls of Savannah Sparrows, sweet “seep” notes of Yellow-rumped Warblers, some White-throated Sparrows, perhaps a couple of Swamp/Lincoln’s Sparrows and probably some other things too including a gang of noisy crickets.
Most people can’t tell any of them apart, but it is still pretty cool to hear the chorus of short, high flight calls and to think that thousands of birds were overhead in the dark that morning!