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 Jeff at March 22nd, 2012 Permalink | Comments: 2 responses Trackback URL for this post: http://www.borealbirds.org/blog/wp-trackback.php?p=1026
Today is World Water Day. With high temperatures scorching much of the United States and Canada many of you may be turning World Water Day into World Water Park Day, but regardless of how you spend it we should all spend a minute to appreciate the ultimate source of life on earth.
The UN’s theme this year is water and food security. Indeed, this is an important connection to highlight. Water doesn’t just quench our thirst, it also produces the food we eat. But it’s not all equal. For instance, it requires 15,000 litres of water (4,000 gallons) to produce one pound of beef whereas only 1,500 litres (400 gallons) of water is needed to produce a pound of wheat. This poses serious questions about what we eat and the impacts we may or may not be aware of each time we step into a grocery store. With climate change projected to widen the gap between weather extremes (in this case droughts and floods), this poses serious risks to food security and water health all around the world.
Willard Bitton of Poplar River First Nation relies on rivers to navigate to his fall moose hunting grounds.
Credit: Garth Lenz
This water isn’t just good for indigenous communities and our atmosphere. The abundance of water is part of what makes the boreal such a popular breeding ground for migratory birds. Millions of waterfowl make good use of the lakes and rivers each summer, and the abundance of insects—in some places so dense they’ve become infamous to humans—attract a wide variety of songbirds eager to fill up and provide for their young. Many of the birds that pass through your neighborhood each spring and fall are likely on their way to or from the boreal. Although much of the southern boreal forest has been degraded, there are large expanses in the north still untouched by the human footprint, providing enormous opportunities for conservation.
It’s important on days like today to recognize both the good and the bad. The bad news is water and food security remains uncertain in many parts of the world. The good news is there are still places in the world like the boreal that retain healthy natural water systems which allow wildlife—and humans—to flourish.
Posted by Jeff at March 21st, 2012 Permalink | Comments: one response Trackback URL for this post: http://www.borealbirds.org/blog/wp-trackback.php?p=1020
Recent warm temperatures are causing some birds to migrate early.
Credit: Garth Lenz
Across New England and southeastern Canada we are experiencing incredibly warm March temperatures—today (March 21) it is nearly 80 degrees F in Maine (that’s about 26 Celsius) when normally we might expect temperatures perhaps in the 40-50 F range!
Birds have been arriving early in many parts of the northeast including here in Maine as you can read here:
Please let us know if you are seeing any differences in arrival dates of birds in your area.
Of course, climate change is having and will continue to have expected and unexpected major implications for birds other wildlife and the people of the boreal region and whether or not this current very warm weather is a sign of things to come, the trend is clear.
Here are some links to background about climate change and birds in Canada and more broadly:
Posted by David at March 16th, 2012 Permalink | Comments: one response Trackback URL for this post: http://www.borealbirds.org/blog/wp-trackback.php?p=1015
It’s truly been the week of the waxwing here at BSI. Just a day after Gary’s wife Bette spotted a group of Bohemian Waxwings feasting on crabapples outside their home in Edmonton, Jeff spotted a solitary waxwing outside his home in Maine perched in a…you guessed it…crabapple tree! He was able to snag a quick shot (camera, of course) as well as a nice video of the lone waxwing stopping by his home. Here’s to even more spring visitors in 2012!
Posted by David at March 14th, 2012 Permalink | Comments: one response Trackback URL for this post: http://www.borealbirds.org/blog/wp-trackback.php?p=1009
BSI friend Gary Stewart recently forwarded along some beautiful images his wife Bette was able to snag of some Bohemian Waxwings outside their home in Alberta. As you can tell by the photos, they really took a liking to the crabapples!
“Grizzly Bear Birds”, as Jeff likes to call them due to their strikingly similar habitat range with the large brown omnivores, are more common in the western half of the United States and Canada. But don’t be surprised to find them further east as they’re known to pop up occasionally even as far east as the Atlantic, as colleague Valerie Courtois noted when some showed up in Goose Bay, Labrador.
Here are the shots. Kudos to Bette for her camera skills to capture them!
Posted by Jeff at February 22nd, 2012 Permalink | Comments: no responses Trackback URL for this post: http://www.borealbirds.org/blog/wp-trackback.php?p=1003
Today the public comment period for the Canadian federal government’s woodland caribou recovery strategy ended. Woodland caribou populations have been spiraling downward for decades, prompting concern among environmentalists, Aboriginal communities, and many everyday citizens concerned with the future of our planet.
A lone caribou crosses a river in Labrador. Credit: Valerie Courtois, Canadian Boreal Initiative
The government actually received so many comments to their draft strategy—14,000 in all—that they need an extra 30 days on top of their initial 30 day window to be able to review them all. This comes just a week after the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) submitted 32,000 petition signatures to the government asking for a robust and clear recovery strategy. 32,000 is the most up-to-date estimate of how many woodland caribou exist in the wild today, down from well over 100,000 just decades ago.
If anything, the petition and the astounding number of public comments they received should only further fuel the fire under their feet to come up with a responsible, scientifically-credible strategy for reversing this concerning drop in caribou across Canada. Some of the main concerns with the draft strategy that have been voiced include:
-Recovery plans would only apply to around half of the herds in Canada
-It only requires government to provide herds with a 60% chance of survival; many think the number should be closer to 80%
-In some areas such as the tar sands region of Alberta, recovery techniques would focus more on killing predators like wolves rather than protecting key habitat from development, which is what scientists argue is the most effective strategy; the Pembina Institute recently found that more than 80% of current caribou habitat in the tar sands region is leased for oil and gas development.
-It doesn’t provide enough leadership to First Nations, who have lived and coexisted harmoniously with woodland caribou for thousands of years and many of which continue to rely on caribou for subsistence.
In order to provide government with the best available science behind what is truly needed to make an impact, I coauthored a policy paper with the International Boreal Conservation Science Panel and other notable scientists to provide specifics about what caribou need to have a chance at survival. The paper, Keeping Woodland Caribou in the Boreal Forest, can be found here.
Woodland caribou are featured on the Canadian quarter.
Credit: Canadian Mint
A lot is at stake. Not only is an iconic animal, featured on the Canadian quarter, plummeting closer to extinction each decade, but a whole host of other species are directly threatened as a result. Caribou are an indicator species, meaning their health is directly reflective of the overall health of their boreal forest environment. Aboriginal peoples who have relied on caribou for food, clothing, and tools for generations could see this important and spiritual animal disappear before their eyes. And as I mentioned in an earlier post, there are a tremendous number of birds, many of which equally threatened such as the Olive-sided Flycatcher, that share habitat with woodland caribou. Preserving these caribou goes far beyond just the animal itself.
We hope the government takes this opportunity seriously and revises its strategy not based on what it can do minimally without instilling backlash, but based on what gives caribou the best chance at living and thriving for centuries to come.
Posted by Jeff at February 16th, 2012 Permalink | Comments: one response Trackback URL for this post: http://www.borealbirds.org/blog/wp-trackback.php?p=999
Today one of our Canadian partner organizations, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), delivered more than 32,000 signatures to Canadian parliament asking them to better protect the increasingly-threatened woodland caribou. These signatures were delivered just a week before the end of the public comment period on the federal government’s national caribou recovery strategy, which many feel still has major shortcomings.
‘Bou’ with CPAWS National Executive Director Éric Hébert-Daly.
Woodland caribou have become an icon in Canada as both a symbol of the rugged wilderness and as a face of the damage that has been going on in their boreal forest habitat. Woodland caribou numbers exceeded 100,000 just decades ago, but now that figure is believed to have dropped to below 40,000. While this number may seem larger than some endangered species in other parts of the world, you have to realize that these caribou are spread throughout much of Canada—the second largest country on earth—and that they belong to individual herds that rarely mix. They’ve been decreasing dramatically in almost every province, with habitat loss and degradation being the leading cause for this rapid decline. In fact, they’ve lost around half of their historic range overall, primarily in the south where industrial activity is the most prevalent.
The importance of preserving woodland caribou goes beyond the simple beauty of the magnificent creatures. Aboriginal peoples in Canada’s boreal forest have been relying on caribou as a source of clothing, tents, food, and tools, for thousands of years, and this creature plays an important spiritual role for many of these groups. Because the health of caribou populations is so intricately linked to the overall health of their boreal habitat, they are seen as indicators of the health of the environment at large.
Woodland caribou are of great importance to many Aboriginal groups.
Credit: Howard Sandler
Most Canadians care about woodland caribou, whether it be a business urbanite or a lodge director in the heart of caribou habitat. They want and demand that science, not politics, is in the driver’s seat for this important recovery strategy.
In current form, the draft strategy seems like a mixed bag. It does provide protection measures for some herds, but wouldn’t require immediate action for nearly half of Canada’s herds overall. In some cases, the plan focuses completely on killing predators like wolves to save the most at-risk herds but requires no habitat restoration—the only viable solution to maintaining the most at-risk herds over the long-term.
We thank CPAWS for putting this petition together and for the 32,000 people who signed it. We hope this message resonates with Canadian officials and they use the great opportunity in front of them to improve their national strategy to allow all caribou herds the best chance at survival.
Posted by Jeff at February 2nd, 2012 Permalink | Comments: no responses Trackback URL for this post: http://www.borealbirds.org/blog/wp-trackback.php?p=989
While many were excited to see Punxsutawney Phil, the famous groundhog of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, rise out of his hole facing his own shadow this morning (it looks like we’ll have 6 more weeks of winter), many others around the world are celebrating a separate event: World Wetlands Day.
Wetlands within the James Bay Lowlands of Ontario Credit: Evan Ferrari
This event, thrown by the Ramsar Convention, is dedicated to spreading awareness about our world’s amazing wetlands. This year the theme is “wetlands and tourism”. While Paris may appeal to those seeking city views and tasty pastries, wetlands have become increasingly popular for tourists around the world. In fact, in 2010 the total number of wetland tourists surpassed 940 million and is estimated to reach 1.6 billion. These tourists can be a particularly important economic boost for some of more rural communities near wetlands.
This shouldn’t come as a huge shock to birders. Wetlands can be some of the best places to find a wide variety of birds. Waterfowl and shorebirds relish the prevalence of fish, frogs, snails, and other tasty treats, while a variety of songbirds and other landbirds come for the abundance of insects buzzing throughout these wet and often marshy areas. This in turn attracts the attention of hawks and other raptors, who see a meal themselves in some of the larger birds as well as small mammals in the area. One visit to a particular wetland might yield sights of a large number of birds of various sizes, shapes, behaviors, and colors.
Lesser Yellowlegs love wetlands Credit: Glen Tepke
But wetlands aren’t just good for birds, they’re good for us. They lock in exorbitant amounts of carbon, preventing greenhouse gasses from entering our atmosphere and further impacting our climate. They filter freshwater and remove toxins, providing millions of people around the world with safe, drinkable water.
But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s an amazing video put together by Ducks Unlimited highlighting the numerous benefits we receive each year from wetlands. It truly is amazing what they do!
Wetland-dependent migratory birds help show us that while many of us may be more active in our own backyard, we all benefit from clean and healthy wetlands around the world. Protecting and restoring wetlands in Central America means healthier and stronger birds returning back up closer to us come spring. Here are a couple stories discussing birds and wetlands in other parts, the first by BirdLife International about birds and wetlands in the Caribbean and the second from a hunter/environmentalist blogger (you can be both if you hunt properly!) from my home state of Maine:
Posted by Jeff at January 27th, 2012 Permalink | Comments: no responses Trackback URL for this post: http://www.borealbirds.org/blog/wp-trackback.php?p=980
One of North America’s most striking yet enigmatic birds, the Snowy Owl, has been anything but elusive so far this winter in many places around the United States, as reported by the New York Times and hundreds of birders around the nation.
Snowy Owl Credit: Government of Quebec (via Wikimedia Commons)
It spends its summers way up in the far reaches of the arctic, hunting lemmings and other small mammals to feed its hatching young. Once the coolness of fall begins sweeping through the arctic, it migrates further south down into the boreal forest of Canada and the northern reaches of the United States to settle in for the winter. Despite this, it still remains difficult to find for many birders even when in the midst of its common range.
If not for the speckling of darker markings across its torso, wings, and head, it would be nearly impossible to see in the snow. Even with the help of its markings it, like many owls, will remain perched silently for hours on end. It’s wide geographical distribution often means a large expanse of habitat might only contain a few Snowy Owls, if any.
However, its striking beauty and the fact that it is diurnal (active during the day) make it a special target for many birders. Those of you who saw The Big Year will recall this bird in particular gave Kenny Bostick (played by Owen Wilson) fits while trying to build his list. That’s why when birders come upon their first Snowy Owl experience, it’s usually a special one.
And for those of you who have yet to see one, this just might be your year. Snowy Owl sightings have been sprouting up almost everywhere, it seems. As the Times article notes, Snowy Owls spottings are being reported by the dozens in places like Kansas and Missouri, where typical years will only produce a few. After a reportedly good breeding season this past summer, this irruptive year is yielding unexpected presents for many well after the holiday season has ended.
One even showed up in Hawaii—the first known spotting—but was unfortunately shot at the airport by officials who worried it might interfere with landings and takeoffs.
Here in Maine there have been a number of them sighted across the state, including one very regular bird that is apparently still at Nubble Light in York. Some spots in Washington State north of Seattle are well known places to find Snowy Owls, as the Boreal Songbird Initiative crew found out in 2006.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently uploaded this video of Snowy Owls that was filmed in the same area:
So if you have the chance to get outside, keep a close lookout for a pleasant surprise. It might be your best chance at catching a glimpse of this enchanting species.
Posted by Jeff at January 23rd, 2012 Permalink | Comments: one response Trackback URL for this post: http://www.borealbirds.org/blog/wp-trackback.php?p=969
While the majority of North American media has been focused on a few high-profile stories over the past few weeks, an amazing and uplifting story has quietly emerged behind the scenes in Manitoba and Ontario.
A warm welcome from some of the children of Bloodvein First Nation.
Credit: Jeff Wells
It began with the joint announcement between the Bloodvein First Nation and the Government of Manitoba over a new land designation covering the Bloodvein First Nation’s traditional lands. Their traditional land—more than 3,900 square kilometres (almost 100,000 acres)—straddles the coastline of Lake Winnipeg and sprawls eastward along the Bloodvein River and surrounding pristine boreal forest. This remote and picturesque region will now become a traditional-use planning area, which will support and maintain the traditional ways of life these people have relied on for generations. It will also allow for sustainable development opportunities as the community sees fit. All in all, 60% of their lands will be off-limits to any non-traditional activities and the remainder will be carefully managed by the First Nation.
The news got even better when last Wednesday the Pimachiowin Aki Corporation—a group of five First Nations (including Bloodvein) and the governments of Manitoba and Ontario—announced their formal nomination to establish a UNESCO World Heritage Site on their traditional lands. Years of cooperation and planning between these entities paved the path toward this day, and we offer our deepest congratulations on this historic achievement.
Here’s a video about the announcement (including great shots of the area):
The more than 43,000 square kilometre area (more than 10 million acres) spans from the coasts of Lake Winnipeg all the way into the western part of Ontario. It is part of a unique type of southern boreal forest and is still highly intact. In fact, it makes up a good portion of the largest intact block of forest anywhere on earth. Vast networks of lakes, rivers, and wetlands span the area and provide a crucial safeguard for numerous species, including the increasingly-threatened woodland caribou. You can read more detailed posts we’ve written in the past about this project here and here.
Pimachiowin Aki is also home to some great scenery.
Credit: Jeff Wells
Being an avid birder, I can highly appreciate this region’s importance for many North American migratory birds. Lying almost directly north of the Mississippi Flyway, enormous quantities of birds—both in terms of species and overall number—use this area for either summer breeding grounds or as stopover habitat along their northward routes, including some of our most threatened birds like the Canada Warbler, Olive-sided Flycatcher, and Rusty Blackbird.
Here’s an Olive-sided Flycatcher I was able to film in the area:
I had the honor and privilege to be able to visit this sacred place this past summer and was able to tour some of the area that would be protected within this World Heritage Site, including a breathtaking flyover. In addition to meeting some amazing and inspiring people who have been working on this project for years, I was able to take some time outside to explore the area. Christian Artuso of Bird Studies Canada also took a trip up to the region this past year and wrote a terrific guest post on our blog about his experiences (including some great photos).
Here’s a video of one site within the region where you can hear some of the birds that I heard while on my trip (listen for: Chestnut-sided Warbler, Gray Jay, White-throated Sparrow, Tennessee Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Ruby-crowned Kinglet):
The proposed UNESCO Site, if eventually finalized, would become the first UNESCO Site designated under both natural and cultural heritage in Canada. The people who live there today have been living off that same land for thousands of years and, if finalized, will be able to for many years to come. And the nature speaks for itself.
A final decision should come from UNESCO by 2013.
Here are a couple additional videos I was able to take while on my trip to the region last summer…
Scenery during a boat ride up the Bloodvein River:
Posted by Jeff at January 9th, 2012 Permalink | Comments: no responses Trackback URL for this post: http://www.borealbirds.org/blog/wp-trackback.php?p=962
The holiday season has come and passed. Some of us find ourselves with a few extra presents, many of us find ourselves with a few extra pounds. Whatever it is we’ve gained this winter, it seems as though Santa is facing the opposite problem.
Santa’s reindeer—or caribou as they’re more commonly known in North America—are in serious trouble. From the migratory barren ground herds in the northern tundra to the more southerly forest-dwelling woodland caribou found in the boreal forest, Santa’s friends (and main mode of transportation) are declining in the wake of habitat loss, predation, and a changing environment.
Dangerous road crossing for a young caribou in Quebec.
Credit: Valerie Courtois, Canadian Boreal Initiative
Justina Ray, a colleague of mine and Executive Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada, recently wrote a well-timed and well-written opinion piece in the New York Times highlighting the plight of our caribou to the north: Read op-ed in NY Times >
While caribou numbers have historically fluctuated up and down, she notes an important difference for caribou this time around:
“In the barren lands of the far north, where caribou numbers have undergone natural fluctuations over decades, the question is whether the declining populations will have the chance and the space to rebound as their ranges, particularly their calving areas, face mineral exploration, mine, oil and gas development, and a changing climate.”
While there are some factors behind their decline mostly out of our control, such as forest fires, we do have the ability to make an impact in other areas. Habitat loss and degradation is widely considered to be the leading factor behind their long-term decline, which was echoed in a paper I coauthored with other leading scientists last summer. Climate change is another threat we can make a difference on.
Woodland caribou have lost much of their southern habitat (in red).
Credit: International Boreal Conservation Campaign
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) has a petition up for Canadian leaders to protect this iconic species from further decline. They are only 10,000 signatures short of their goal of 36,000, the estimated number of woodland caribou remaining in the wild.
So unless you’re comfortable with the idea of Santa hitching a ride next Christmas Eve, I highly suggest you add your name to the list! Sign petition >