Saturday, January 26, 2013

Snowbird 2.0

American Tree Sparrow: Always at home in the snow.
From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes:  When I was a kid, first learning about birds, I read that "snowbird" was the Dark-eyed Junco's nickname.  Juncos are easy to recognize, and for many people in the eastern U.S., they are characteristic birds of winter.  But for me, the real "snowbirds" are American Tree Sparrows.  Strictly winter birds anywhere south of the Arctic, they arrive with cold weather, and they visit Kimberly and me only when the snow flies.  

American Tree Sparrows belong to the genus Spizella, which makes them relatives of familiar birds like Chipping Sparrow and Field Sparrow.  The main difference is that Tree Sparrows have their center of distribution at least a thousand miles farther north.  Indeed, "Tree Sparrow" is a misnomer:  many spend the summer far north of treeline, on the tundra, where the largest willows are only a couple of feet tall.  In winter, flocks range through brushy fields, marshes, and open country.  Trees aren't really important to them at any time of year. 

Range of the American Tree Sparrow. Red represents the summer range; dark blue is the main winter range, while pale blue shows where it is less numerous in winter. The gray area in between shows where the species passes through in migration.

For years I lived in Arizona, where it was a major challenge to find American Tree Sparrows at all.  If we searched hard enough in the northeastern part of the state in winter, we might eventually find a flock of three or four.  Here in northern Ohio, though, we are blessed with an abundance of these beautiful sparrows in winter.  On Christmas Bird Counts, we tally them by the hundreds.  Flocks move ahead of us along the hedgerows, across the weedy fields, making a soft, musical tinkling chorus as they go.

American Tree Sparrow: soft colors, musical callnotes, active flocks in the brushy fields of winter.
Where Kimberly and I live now, in the country north of Oak Harbor, flocks of Tree Sparrows are nearby all winter.  They're half a mile away, in the willows along the canal, along the edge of the woodlot, in the overgrown fields.  But they don't come to our yard except under certain conditions.  We have more than a dozen bird feeders out, and lots of birds visit every day: goldfinches, cardinals, House Finches, Downy Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, and more.  But the American Tree Sparrows don't come to the yard - until it snows. 

Whenever it snows, American Tree Sparrows move in from the surrounding countryside to feed on birdseed in our yard... at least until the snow melts.
Every time it snows, the number of Tree Sparrows in the yard goes from zero to 20 or 25 within a matter of hours.  They'll be all around the house, hopping on every feeder, sitting in the tops of the shrubs outside every window, taking advantage of our generous supply of birdseed.  (It's almost enough to make me look forward to snow!)    

American Tree Sparrow posing outside our window.  Like all of our native North American sparrows, it shows beautiful feather patterns if we take the time to look closely.
One of the most appealing things about these little visitors from the Arctic is that they do, in fact, leave the yard each time the snow melts. It suggests an admirable level of independence.  Other birds stick around the yard for easy pickings, but the Tree Sparrows only drop in briefly, and they will soon head out to wilder pastures again.  In a few months, when spring comes, when other sparrows come back from the deep south, the American Tree Sparrows will fly away, far to the north, to lands farther north than any junco would go, to lands where it might snow even in summer.  Yes, these are snowbirds, all right. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

When Wind Energy Development Isn't Regulated - Birds Lose

An update on Black Swamp Bird Observatory's struggle to 
protect birds from poorly placed wind turbines in the 
critical migratory bird stopover habitat in northwest Ohio. 

You've all seen that play, right?  The runner has the ball, he's fighting off defenders like a mad man, dragging tacklers down the field, making forward progress in spite of the odds, and then...


He gets clobbered by the one he didn't see coming.

The image below is the one we didn't see coming.
A large wind turbine ready to be installed at the 
Erie Business Park in Ottawa County, Ohio. 
Only a few miles from Magee Marsh.

Would that it were only a game. And when the play ended and the whistle blew, we could simply shake off the hit and return to real life. But it isn't a game. This is real life. The playing field is critical migratory bird habitat. The players are just ordinary people with an EXTRAordinary level of dedication to protecting bird habitat. And we are really feeling this latest hit. 

The turbine above is NOT the Camp Perry wind turbine that Black Swamp Bird Observatory has been fighting for months.  No, this is ANOTHER wind turbine that no one knew anything about. Not the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).  Not the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR).  They learned about it from us, and we heard about it from a private citizen who just happened to be in the area and noticed the massive structure lying on the ground. This turbine is in something called the Erie Business Park, just west of the Camp Perry facility.  DEEP in the heart of some of the most bird-sensitive habitat in northwest Ohio. In an area where there are more than 60 Bald Eagle nests. In an area where songbirds, shorebirds, and waterfowl by the millions stop over in migration to rest and feed during their journey. In an area where you'd think it would be easy to protect birds, right? 


Take a look at the size of the tower sections compared to the utility pole in the picture. This is not a small turbine.

Now take a look at the Erie Business Park's website, at the link called "The Future." If you look carefully at this stylized map, you'll see plans for SIX large wind turbines across the back of the property. Perhaps this is nothing more than a vision at this point.  But with one turbine already on site, they appear to be putting that vision into motion. 

And this is all we know. The person listed as the contact for the business park is not taking calls or returning messages, so no one knows anything more. 

And, in spite of BSBO's efforts to stop the Camp Perry turbine, in spite of all the official support for our position from state and national conservation organizations, after state and federal wildlife officials told Camp Perry that the project's Environmental Assessment (that they paid a lot of taxpayer money for) was riddled with inaccuracies, misleading statements, and erroneous findings, and Camp Perry ignored wildlife officials and issued their own "Finding of No Significant Impact.." we have heard nothing--no response at all--from the officials at Camp Perry about that project, either. 

We've contacted the local media and there's a story in the works.  We'll wait to see if it tells the real story or if we can just add it the pile of news stories that completely and utterly miss the point.

A bit about regulating wind energy development
Regulation of commercial-scale wind projects is complex and complicated. When a wind project exceeds 5 megawatts, the Ohio Power Siting Board has to review it. Most of these single turbines do not exceed that limit, so they stay under the radar in most cases.  Local level zoning and certain grants that require federal wildlife review are the only real "regulations" that stand in their way--even in the most bird sensitive areas. For the most part, there is no consideration of environmental impact on these single turbine application at all. They can literally go up without anyone knowing or reviewing the impact.  

The current USFWS guidelines for commercial wind energy development are VOLUNTARY - and they fail miserably to protect birds.  And, while the country's conservation organizations focus on commercial-scale wind development (and rightfully so), these single turbine projects are busting through any barriers that might have protected birds in these incredibly sensitive areas. Bottom line, if you string enough single turbines together you have a wind farm.  And commercial developers know it! 

We've already lost the battle to stop three large wind turbines at Oregon City Schools to the west of Magee Marsh. Two at one location and a third at another school. 

Two large turbines at
Eisenhower Middle School
near Maumee Bay State Park
Those turbines are up and operating--and not without continued controversy. Here's a quote from Debbie Paul, the external affairs manager for Toledo Edison about the issue with the Clay High School turbine. 

“The turbine that they have at Clay is huge – the largest of its kind on our system. It really needs to be on a wind farm. That’s what it was designed for – not for a distribution system. Either system could backfeed into the other when a generator over-commits and pushes energy back into the system. We have guys working on our system every minute of every hour of every day. To think a line is de-energized when it’s energized – that’s a huge safety risk on our part.”

Add the Oregon City School turbines to the ones at Camp Perry and Erie Business Park, and you start to see what birds are going to be up against before long. 

It is going to take citizen action to stop this. Birders who care have got to step up, band together, and speak out about this. As individuals, we can no longer sit on the sidelines and depend on wildlife officials to protect wildlife habitat.  They need our help. 

If you care about migratory bird habitat in northwest Ohio, then we urge you to let some of the "powers that be" know about it. 

Contact the Ottawa County Commissioners office and let them know that you expect Ottawa County to protect the habitat that migratory birds depend on for survival - or you will not spend your money in their County!  

Let Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur know how you feel about wind turbines threatening migratory bird stopover habitat in her District. 

Ohio Office
One Maritime Plaza - Sixth Floor
Toledo, OH 43604
(800) 964-4699 - Tel: (419) 259-7500
Fax: (419) 255-9623

Please, do what you can to educate yourself about wind energy development and speak up for the protection of wildlife habitat.  The voice of the people is the best hope for the future. 

Friday, January 4, 2013

Rocking the birds at Rockport

Roseate Spoonbills are not challenging to identify, but they certainly brighten up a day of birding. Spoonbills can be found at all seasons in the region of Rockport/Fulton on the central Texas coast.
From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes:  In early March, much of North America still will be struggling to shake off winter, weary of the cold and impatient for spring.  But on the central Texas coast, things will be hopping, as the abundant wintering birds mix with the first spring migrants.  And we will be there also.  We will be reviving a tradition that aims to increase the enjoyment of birding.
Marbled Godwits, photographed in winter at Rockport, Texas. A wide variety of shorebirds can be found  here  through the winter, with more joining them during migration.  For learning to identify shorebirds with confidence, it's especially helpful to see them in mixed flocks, where direct comparisons are possible. 
In the early 1990s, Victor Emanuel and I started a series of birding workshops at Rockport, Texas.  The first edition of my Field Guide to Advanced Birding had just been published, and we used the principles in that book to plan our activities in the field.  These workshops turned out to be tremendously inspiring and fun: in a radical departure from the usual tour experience, we moved slowly in the field, studying birds in new ways, trying new approaches that would apply to the field identification of all birds.  And although we weren't trying to run up big lists of species, we wound up seeing a lot of birds, simply because that area of the Texas coast is so rich in bird habitat. 

These workshops were popular for several years, but eventually I had so many demands on my time that I couldn't continue doing them, so we let them lapse for a while.  But after the brand-new edition of my Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding was published in April 2011, Victor and I decided to bring them back.  Victor Emanuel Nature Tours is holding another Rockport Birding Workshop in March 2013, and I couldn't be more pleased and excited.  

An adult Sandwich Tern. Many of the terns are easy to identify when they're in breeding plumage and sitting still in front of us, but they can be more challenging when they're flying at a distance.  We'll break down the challenges and take the mystery out of tern identification.

The Rockport Birding Workshop is scheduled for March 7 - 11, 2013, and more information can be found at this link.  Kimberly and I will join Victor Emanuel and Barry Lyon in teaching the workshop.  Our days in the field will have a relaxed pace but an intense focus; we will divide into small groups and rotate regularly, so that everyone has a chance to go birding with each leader. The daytime sessions in the field will be supplemented by evening programs focusing on specific groups of birds.  If you join us, I guarantee that you will improve your skills at identifying birds.  

Sparrows can be tough to ID at times, but they become easier to understand if we start by looking at their behavior and habitat and shape, breaking them down into groups, before we start looking at specific markings.  It's often possible to identify Savannah Sparrows like this one before we've seen a single actual field mark.
The beaches near Rockport host several kinds of small shorebirds.  Their markings may not be very helpful in identifying them, but their shapes and facial expressions are worth noticing.  Looking at the face on this Piping Plover, we hesitate to say that it looks "cute," but that's actually a good ID clue. 
Just a plain brown duck?  No, it's actually a Mottled Duck, a specialty of the Gulf Coast.  During the Rockport Workshop, we'll talk about approaches for identifying ducks up close and at a distance.  
The theme of the workshop is the same as the subtitle of the latest edition of Advanced Birding: "Understanding what you see and hear."  By the way, don't be put off by that word "advanced."  Our focus is on the basics, on principles that would be helpful even to beginners. 

I've always felt that birding should be, first and foremost, enjoyable.  It's more enjoyable when we can recognize more of the birds we're seeing - and when we understand why we can't recognize some of the others.  Understanding is the key.  We say that the workshop is focused on field identification, but "bird appreciation" might be an even better description.
White-tailed Kites are uncommon but regular year-round residents of the coastal prairies near Rockport.
White Ibises (immature on left, adult on right) are among the many species of wading birds found in this region. 
Even though we won't be trying to run up a big species total, we will undoubtedly see a good variety of birds, including the Whooping Cranes that winter in this area.  In early March their migration will be just beginning, so most of the wintering flock should still be present. 
The main wild flock of Whooping Cranes, nesting in north-central Canada, spends the winter in the area of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge just north of Rockport.  We will take a half-day boat trip through the protected waters of the refuge to see the cranes (and many other birds) up close.
In closing, I can't resist going back to the theme of "bird appreciation."  Victor Emanuel and I have been friends for many years, and that's partly because we both appreciate birds in the same way.  Since Victor runs one of the world's most successful nature tour companies, he has made many trips to every continent and has seen many of the rarest birds on the planet, but he still takes genuine delight in seeing everyday, backyard birds.  If you've read our blog in the past, you know that Kimberly and I feel the same way about the most common birds - we love them all!  And Barry Lyon, whom I've known since he was a teenager, is similarly committed to appreciating all of birds and nature.  And we all love people, too!  There are still some spaces open for our Rockport Birding Workshop, and we hope you'll consider joining us!  Once again, more information can be found at this link.  

Not all birds in the Rockport area are as easy to identify as the Black-bellied Whistling-Duck. But whether they are easy or challenging, common or rare, we will study them closely as part of our approach to field ID.