Tag Archives: migratory bird

Citizen science to make a difference for the rusty blackbird

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The rusty blackbird, a close relative to the grackle, is one of North America’s most rapidly declining species.

If you look carefully into the wooded swamps and woodlands of a boreal forest of our northern states, you may catch a glimpse of one, distinct in appearance from other blackbirds with its rusty featheredges and pale yellow eyes. Rusty blackbirds can also be spotted in our region into late summer and fall as they migrate from these breeding grounds towards their wintering areas in the southern U.S.

Once common, populations have dropped 85 to 95 percent in the last 40 years. The cause of the dramatic decline in numbers is unclear. While extensive loss of wooded forests and wetlands to agriculture on their wintering grounds is a likely factor, the principle cause is unknown. Scientists hypothesize that there is a “perfect storm” of factors that also includes:

  • competition for food with more common blackbirds,
  • increased exposure to disease,
  • climate change drying out habitat on their breeding grounds, and
  • high levels of mercury in their bodies, which might affect overall health.

The International Rusty Blackbird Working Group believed that the mystery of the rusty blackbird decline and its large range made it a perfect candidate for a citizen science project. Thus, the Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz from early March through mid June this year.

“The Migration Blitz will provide new information on migration timing and migratory hot spots that will help us focus conservation efforts for this species where and when they will have the greatest impact.” says Randy Dettmers, one of our biologists studying the bird’s behavior.

Birders from 38 U.S. states, 9 Canadian provinces and 3 Canadian territories tracked these elusive songbirds on their northward migration from the southeastern U.S. up through Canada and into Alaska. Presence or absence information is entered into the Cornell lab of Ornithology eBird site, and scientists will use the data from the Blitz to target future conservation efforts and research initiatives.

During the first full month of the Blitz, birders submitted 6,281 checklists into eBird that included location information of rusty blackbirds–a 41 percent increase from 2013. These data provide much more than the typical snapshot of a single location; it’s like a collective collage that shows a much fuller picture. While the final tallies are still coming in, if the upward trend of submitted information continues, there will be a wealth of knowledge for scientists to sort through.

The Blitz presented a unique opportunity for citizens to both get outside and enjoy nature in the spring, and to actively participate in an effort that sets a new precedent for conservation.

“The Blitz focuses on rusties, but it also demonstrates the power and potential for leveraging citizen science for conservation,” noted Blitz coordinator Judith Scarl of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies.

Even though the rusties have already passed through many of our region’s states, there’s some fascinating birding to be done this month. Check out these tips from eBird!

 

Four years ago, in the summer of 2010, the Refuge deployed 30 geolocator tags on 30 separate Arctic terns. Just recently, staff captured the handsome gentleman they have nicknamed Giovanni (Geo, for short). Credit: USFWS

Tag along on the longest migration in the animal kingdom

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You’ve heard us talk about the incredible migration of the rufa red knot, but did you know the Arctic tern undertakes the longest migration in the animal kingdom? Check out what the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge is doing to unravel some of the mysteries of its journey.

Summer with the seabirds

Arctic Terns have arguably the most impressive migration of any bird – they travel from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back again just about every year of their lives.  While we’ve known for a while where the terns travel, how they get there has been something of a mystery. Do they travel along the coastline? Do they take a direct route from Maine to the Antarctic coast? Do they do a marathon flight from pole to pole, or make pit stops along the way?  These questions were nearly impossible to answer until very recently, for the simple reason that following a single tern (or even a flock of them) is nearly impossible. Terns are small birds – a little over 100 grams, or 3.5 ounces – so they can’t be equipped with heavy satellite tags. They also do mostof their traveling over water, so the odds of spotting a…

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Credit: USFWS

Service special agent reduces injuries to hawks at Mass. landfills

Marla Isaac examines red-tailed hawk. Credit: James Dowd/USFWS

Rehabilitator Marla Isaac examines a red-tailed hawk injured at Taunton Sanitary Landfill. Credit: James Dowd/USFWS

These methane-burning stacks at landfills are dangerous. They expel flames that burn hawks. Credit: James Dowd/USFWS

These methane-burning stacks at landfills are dangerous. They expel flames that burn hawks. Credit: James Dowd/USFWS

Designed by Joanne Mason of Keeping Company with Kestrels Inc., these tops are shaped like a crown with sharp points, preventing birds from perching on the smokestack. Credit: James Dowd/USFWS

Designed by Joanne Mason of Keeping Company with Kestrels Inc., these tops are shaped like a crown with sharp points, preventing birds from perching on the smokestack. Credit: James Dowd/USFWS

When hawks fly across landfills, they find smokestacks perfect for perching and eyeing prey scavenging waste.

But those smokestacks aren’t so perfect. They ignite, rushing flames upward in speeds the hawks can’t beat, scorching or even killing the birds. Injured birds become prime targets for coyotes and other predators.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent James Dowd has taken a creative route to handle these injuries to hawks at Massachusetts landfills.

In 2011, he got a call from a raptor rehabilitator – an injured female juvenile red-tailed hawk had been found around Taunton Sanitary Landfill.

“The rehabilitator, Marla Isaac, described the hawk’s injuries as burns to the wing and tail feathers,” Dowd says. “She explained that this injury is consistent with having been burned by a methane gas flare stack.”

These stacks burn methane gas, which is produced by landfills for energy and burned to destroy dangerous pollutants in excess gas.

“A single perch discourager would prevent hawks from perching on these flare systems,” he says.

DID YOU KNOW?
Hawks are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the Service’s law enforcement enforce this and conserve migratory birds, in addition to helping manage ecosystems, save endangered species, preserve wildlife habitat, restore fisheries, combat invasive species and promote international wildlife conservation. Learn more.

Dowd worked with company operating the smokestack, Fortistar, to get an aluminum top placed on the smokestack flare system. Designed by Joanne Mason of Keeping Company with Kestrels Inc., the tops are shaped like a crown with sharp points, preventing birds from perching there.

To this date, no other bird injuries have been reported, and Fortistar committed to using these tops on all their new smokestack flare systems.

In 2012, another incident demonstrated that other conditions can circumvent the success of these perch-deterring tops. At the Halifax Landfill, the smokestack was positioned between two other perch spots, with the flight path directly over the flame of the smokestack.

This injured kestrel with burns to its wing and tail feathers was brought from the Halifax Landfill for rehabilitation. Credit: USFWS

This injured kestrel with burns to its wing and tail feathers was brought from the Halifax Landfill for rehabilitation. Credit: USFWS

An injured kestrel with burns to its wing and tail feathers was brought from the landfill for rehabilitation. While Isaac expects it will fly again this summer, she won’t release the kestrel because burns to its left eye caused blindness. This kestrel will need to live the remainder of its life in an educational facility.

Dowd worked with the smokestack operator, Republic Services, to remove one of the perch spots, an old utility pole.

“This change in configuration should lessen the chances of a bird flying from perch to perch directly over the flare system,” Dowd says.

In late 2012, Dowd watched as the fully recovered hawk from Taunton Landfill was released at the Lyman Reserve conservation area in Wareham, Mass.

Photo of Marla Isaac from The Clueless Gardeners blog.

Photo of Marla Isaac from The Clueless Gardeners blog.