Thursday, September 12, 2013

Why Birders Buy the Duck Stamp

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes: A big event is coming to northwest Ohio at the end of September, and local birders are excited about it.

That in itself is not unusual. Northwest Ohio is no stranger to birding events. One of the largest and most important bird festivals on the continent, The Biggest Week In American Birding, makes a huge impact here every May. Another notable festival, the Midwest Birding Symposium, is held here in fall every other year. But the event in late September isn’t a birding festival. It’s the contest to choose the artwork for next year’s Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp—better known as the Duck Stamp.

The Duck Stamp program dates to 1934, a time when waterfowl populations in North America were in serious trouble because of habitat loss. The federal wildlife agencies needed a way to raise money to purchase or restore wetland habitats. By producing the stamp and requiring hunters to buy it, they were able to immediately start raising funds to protect habitat for nesting, wintering, and migratory stopovers for waterfowl. The program has been a spectacular success, having raised many millions of dollars and having led to the protection of over 5.3 million acres of quality habitat.
The first Duck Stamp, from 1934
At first, artists supplied each year’s stamp design by invitation. Starting in 1949, the stamp design has been chosen by a contest each year. The winning artist is not paid for the artwork, but the prestige of winning can provide a huge boost to any wildlife artist’s career, so hundreds enter every year. The contest is administered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and judged by five independent experts appointed by the Secretary of the Interior. Some talented artists have won the contest more than once, but being a judge is a coveted, once-in-a-lifetime honor.

Who buys the stamp? Waterfowl hunters are required to purchase one—and I think most would do so willingly, because they believe in supporting the resource. Many stamp collectors also buy these little works of art every year, adding them to their collections. And many birders also buy the stamp. I’ve been buying it for many years now. But why?

Why do birders buy the stamp? Because we like ducks too, and we recognize that the stamp supports many kinds of wildlife. Wetlands for ducks are also ideal habitats for rails, gallinules, bitterns, grebes, terns, various marsh-loving wrens and sparrows, and many other birds.
White Ibises (juvenile and adult): they're not ducks, but they have benefited greatly from the habitat protection made possible by Duck Stamp sales.
But proceeds from stamp sales don’t just buy duck habitat. This money goes into the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund (MBCF), and then it is used to add to the National Wildlife Refuge System, through either purchase or lease of land. Consider these popular birding refuges, and the percentage of their total area paid for with MBCF money:

Bombay Hook NWR, Delaware  95%
Forsythe NWR (Brigantine), New Jersey  84%
Bosque del Apache NWR, New Mexico  99%
Pea Island NWR, North Carolina  99%
Ottawa NWR, Ohio  86%
Anahuac NWR, Texas  87%
Santa Ana NWR, Texas  94%

Birders who travel will know that all these refuges support many kinds of birds besides ducks. Santa Ana NWR, for example, does have a couple of small lakes that host a few hundred ducks at some seasons, but most of the refuge is subtropical woodland, home to Green Jays, Hook-billed Kites, and other specialty birds of the border region. Ottawa NWR, near my home in Ohio, does host large numbers of waterfowl, but it’s also prime habitat for Bald Eagles, and its woodlands swarm with warblers and other migratory songbirds in spring. Birders and wildlife-watchers get far more use out of these refuges than hunters do.
A Cape May Warbler, migrating north in spring toward its summer home in the Canadian spruce forests, pauses at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in Ohio. About 86 percent of the habitat on the Ottawa refuge was purchased with Duck Stamp funds.
As a serious birder, knowing that Duck Stamp sales have provided habitats like these, I have plenty of reason to buy the stamp every year. But I’ve had some additional involvement with the stamp. In October 2004, I flew to Washington to serve as one of the judges for the contest to choose the 2005-2006 Federal Duck Stamp design.

My fellow judges were John Tomke, president of Ducks Unlimited; Dr. Tom Hutchens, immediate past chairman of Delta Waterfowl Foundation; Rich Smoker, a renowned carver of waterfowl; and Michael Jaffe, a leading philatelist and expert on conservation stamps. Of course, I’m not a hunter or a carver or a stamp expert. I was there to represent the birders.

That could have been a recipe for tension. In some parts of North America there is a deep divide, or at least a sense of wariness, between birders and hunters.  But my relations with hunters always have been cordial, because I’ve always recognized how much they contribute to conservation. As a kid, reading Roger Tory Peterson’s Birds Over America, I was impressed at how the great birdman gave credit to sportsmen’s groups for protecting duck habitat. He wrote about the Duck Stamp, about the National Wildlife Refuges, about private organizations like Ducks Unlimited. He wrote that there was a huge difference between the market gunners of former times, who wiped out wildlife for sheer profit, and modern sportsmen, who worked to maintain healthy populations of wildlife so that hunting could continue.

So even birders who don’t hunt recognize the conservation work done by hunters’ groups. In speaking to bird clubs and bird festivals, I have made this point many times over the last 25 years: “I’m concerned about bird conservation. I worry about what will happen to populations of shorebirds. I worry about what will happen to populations of hawks, woodpeckers, warblers. But I never spend a minute worrying about ducks, because the duck hunters are taking care of them. If duck hunting ever fades away, we will have to scramble like crazy to find a way to protect that whole group of birds and their habitats."

Most birders understand that, so I rarely get any flack for saying it. And having said this to birding groups hundreds of times, it was no sweat to say it to the hunters on the judging panel. We got along fine for our two days of discussions and deliberations, we chose a beautiful painting by Mark Anderson for the 2005-2006 stamp, and I was never made to feel that I, as a birder, was out of place.

Mark Anderson's artwork graced the 2005-2006 Duck Stamp, and I was proud to have played a part in selecting this striking and beautiful design for the stamp.
So if birders are being included as judges in the contest, does that mean that the birding community at large is recognized for its support of the Duck Stamp program?  Well—sort of. There are steps in that direction. Federal wildlife agencies are paying more attention to birders than they used to. For the last few years I’ve been on an advisory panel on “Birding on the National Wildlife Refuges,” and some of our recommendations have gained some traction. But a high percentage of employees at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service still come from a hunting and fishing background. Thinking about birders and nongame birds may be a stretch for some of them.

Whatever the reason, birders sometimes feel oddly left out by the policies of some National Wildlife Refuges. And some birders use that as an excuse for not buying the Duck Stamp. “Why should I buy it,” they say, “when the hunters will get all the credit for supporting the program?” I have argued that the Duck Stamp is a powerful force for bird conservation, and that we shouldn’t care who gets the credit. But at some level, I can see their point. If birders aren’t recognized for supporting the stamp and the refuges, won’t it be harder for us to influence the refuges to help the nongame birds?

For the birders who raise that objection, here’s a suggestion: support the program and make your voice heard by buying the Duck Stamp from a birding organization. There are more and more opportunities to do this. The Georgia Ornithological Society and Wisconsin Society for Ornithology are among several state bird clubs that sell the stamp. Here in northwest Ohio, the Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) started selling the Duck Stamp several years ago. It’s important to note that selling the stamp is not like selling regular merchandise: there is no profit. If BSBO sells a book for 15 dollars, they probably will make 6 or 7 dollars on it. When BSBO sells a Duck Stamp for 15 dollars, the profit is zero. There is no markup. The money all goes straight back to the program.

So why does the Black Swamp Bird Observatory bother to sell the stamp? Because they are committed to conservation. They are committed to supporting habitat for all birds.

Northwest Ohio just might be the best place to build better relations between the communities of birders and hunters. After all, the birders who live here realize that some of our very best birding sites, places like Magee Marsh Wildlife Area and Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, were saved from development by private duck-hunting clubs. The duck clubs kept the habitat in good shape until the time that the land could be sold or donated to the government wildlife agencies. Even today, some of the most productive bird habitat is managed by private duck clubs. So all the birders here know that we owe a debt of gratitude to the hunters.

And the birders here already support the Duck Stamp. Look at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, which not only sells the stamp but actively promotes it. On their website, in their nature shop, at their huge Biggest Week In American Birding festival, BSBO urges the birders to buy the stamp and protect habitat.

There are other connections, too. At the end of the month, when the judging for next year’s Duck Stamp takes place in northwest Ohio, the contest will be held at the Lodge at Maumee Bay State Park. This is the same lodge that serves as headquarters for The Biggest Week In American Birding each spring. We birders are very familiar with this place, and many of us will come to the lodge to witness the Duck Stamp contest. We’ll look at the art, pick our own favorites, argue about relative merits of the different pieces, and await the decision of the judges. And when the stamp is issued next June, we’ll be among the first in line to buy it.

Why? Enlightened self-interest. We know that our birding in the future depends on saving habitat today. We know that the Duck Stamp is a highly effective program for saving habitat. So we’re really just helping ourselves.

The duck hunters recognize this principle. Ducks Unlimited, one of the most effective conservation groups in the world, recently started a campaign to urge their members to “Double Up For Ducks,” to buy two Duck Stamps per year instead of one. The hunters don’t have to buy a second stamp—but many of them do.

By the same token, the people at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory don’t have to sell the Duck Stamp—but they do. And the birders don’t have to buy the stamp—but we do.

Do I wish that birders got more recognition for supporting the program? Well, sure. It’s nice to get credit. And we'll keep working on that. But in the meantime, we need to save habitat, and this is one of the easiest, most direct ways to do it. If you like birds and you haven't yet bought your Duck Stamp for this year, why not click this link and buy the stamp right now? 

Helpful links for more information:

Monday, September 9, 2013

Random Bird: South Georgia Pipit

South Georgia Pipit (Anthus antarcticus)
From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes: According to the International Ornithological Congress, there are over 10,480 species of birds in the world. According to us, every single one of those species is fascinating in its own way. 

Take this one. It's not large, it's not colorful, it doesn't have the most interesting song. But it lives in an amazing place. This is a South Georgia Pipit. It isn't found in the state of Georgia in the U.S., and it isn't found in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. No, this bird lives only on South Georgia Island, out where the South Atlantic meets the Antarctic Ocean.

South Georgia is huge, wild, remote. About 100 miles long and up to 23 miles wide, it is crowned with snow-capped peaks that rise as much as 9000 feet in the air. The island and the surrounding waters are home to many large and spectacular creatures: seals, whales, penguins, albatrosses, various other seabirds. This is also home to the small, inconspicuous South Georgia Pipit, which lives nowhere else in the world. The pipit is the only songbird on the island. 

I have been lucky enough to visit South Georgia four times, as a lecturer on expedition cruises. Kimberly and I both visited there in January 2009, helping to lead a cruise for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. Of course we spent much of our time admiring the Wandering Albatrosses and King Penguins, but we also watched the small, drab South Georgia Pipits.
South Georgia Pipit. It may not look like much, but it's amazing that this bird even exists.
The fact that the bird is there at all is a testament to the powerful flying abilities of pipits in general. Members of this group are found on six continents, and some of them are very long-distance migrants. At some point in the past, the ancestors of this species arrived on South Georgia, probably in a small flock, perhaps coming from South America. They survived, and evolved over time into the distinct species that we see today. 

Historically, the pipit probably was abundant all over the lowlands of South Georgia. Today it is confined to a few tiny offshore islets and to a few small bays surrounded by ice or sheer cliffs. Why? Because rats have colonized most of the main island. Rats, coming ashore from early sailing vessels, have spread over most of the island, wiping out all but the largest birds. I have thought about this while hiking around South Georgia, across hillsides that once rang with the flight-songs of pipits. Today there is no sound but the wind sighing through the grass. It's like a land of ghosts. Go to a small offshore island like Prion Island, where we took these photos, an island teeming with pipits and with all kinds of seabirds, and you get a glimpse of what the main island would have been like at one time.

There's a project now under way to try to eradicate the rat population from South Georgia. I don't know if it's even possible; we're talking about an island with a surface area of more than 1,300 square miles. But if the project succeeds, the South Georgia Pipit, now hanging on by a thread, may become numerous again in its remote and limited range. 

South Georgia Pipit: Will it have a brighter future?

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Letting Go of the Curlew

Eskimo Curlews, as painted by John James Audubon in the early 1800s.
From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes:

Fifty years ago today, on Sept. 4, 1963, an Eskimo Curlew was shot on the island of Barbados.

Many migratory shorebirds were shot every fall on islands in the Lesser Antilles. It was almost a fluke that this small curlew was recognized as something unusual and that the specimen was given, many months later, to an ornithologist from Philadelphia. And in another fluke, as a little kid and beginning birder, I heard about this only two years after the curlew was shot. I had joined the National Audubon Society at the age of nine, since it was the only bird group that I'd heard of, and one of my very first issues of Audubon Magazine carried the sad news about the curlew. 

At that point the Eskimo Curlew was already a bird of legend. It had been abundant at one time, migrating north through the Great Plains in spring, nesting in the Canadian Arctic, migrating out over the Atlantic in fall in a great arc that took it to southern South America for the winter. But its abundance was no shield against the market hunters who shot shorebirds by the hundreds of thousands in the late 1800s. By early in the 20th century, the curlew had been pushed to the edge of extinction, and years at a time would pass with no sightings at all. 

Miraculously, one or two migrating individuals had been found on the upper Texas coast in spring in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and had even been photographed. But after the lone bird was shot on Barbados, the spring sightings in Texas ceased. 

The year that I turned nine and joined the Audubon Society, my family moved from Indiana to Kansas. I was now positioned directly on the spring route that the Eskimo Curlew once had followed. Great flocks of the curlews, along with American Golden-Plovers, Upland Sandpipers, and other "shorebirds" of open fields, traditionally had touched down in the area where I was now living as an avid, intense kid birder.  

So of course I looked for them. Throughout my teenage years, the Eskimo Curlew was on my mind. After all, I reasoned, it would be too bizarre a coincidence if that gunner on Barbados had connected with the very last curlew. If there had been one or two in Texas in 1962, if there had been one in Barbados in 1963, there had to be a few still out there. So every spring I would search in what seemed like the right habitats. I saw plenty of Upland Sandpipers, lesser numbers of American Golden-Plovers and Buff-breasted Sandpipers and Baird's Sandpipers, all species that would have used the same stopover sites as the mythical curlew. And I kept believing that I would find the curlew itself: After all, I kept telling myself as the years went by, we know the species was still alive five years ago... seven years ago... ten years ago... fifteen years ago...

Hope dies hard, and some people continue to believe that some Eskimo Curlews might be making the long journey from the Arctic to Argentina and back, every year, undetected. Indeed, there continue to be a few claimed sightings. But none has been documented since 1963. And in the meantime we have an army of skilled birders scouring every shorebird habitat, telescopes and cameras in hand. Let a Black-tailed Godwit from Europe touch down in Florida, let a Red-necked Stint from Siberia land in California, and it is immediately documented in a thousand photos. If any Eskimo Curlews survived, wouldn't someone have taken a photo of one during the last fifty years? 

The year that I turned nine and joined the Audubon Society, I also discovered an amazing book in the local library. Last of the Curlews had been published in the mid-1950s, before the spate of spring sightings in Texas. A small gem of a book by Canadian author Fred Bodsworth, it told the fictionalized story of an Eskimo Curlew, perhaps the last of its kind, migrating alone toward the Arctic. The book was beautifully written, and it had a powerful impact on me as an impressionable boy who loved birds. I learned early on to hate the idea of extinction, to mourn the loss of any species.  
Fred Bodsworth, author of Last of the Curlews
Mr. Bodsworth was a kind and generous man, and a fine naturalist as well as a gifted writer. He passed away a year ago, in September 2012. More than a decade before, however, I'd had the chance to meet him, and I feel fortunate that I was able to tell him how much his Last of the Curlews had meant to me. But as the calendar clicks past the fifty-year mark since the last of the certain, definite, confirmed curlews died, I may finally have to let go of the idea that I will ever see that bird in life.