Saturday, July 19, 2008

An incredible gift for birds

The boreal forest, a 55 million acres of which of which will be protected in Ontario (©Scott Weidensaul)

One of the biggest conservation stories ever emerged last week, but received relatively little press here in the States. The premier of Ontario has pledged to set aside half of the province -- about 55 million acres, an area the size of the entire UK -- for permanent conservation, with requirements that industry work with First Nations and the government to craft sustainable development plans for the rest.

Given that the boreal forest is the great bird factory of North America, producing billions of migratory songbirds, waterfowl, shorebirds and raptors, this is arguably the single biggest win in history for bird conservation.

Anyone who enjoys the seasonal flow of warblers, thrushes, sparrows and other migrant songbirds passing through in the Lower 48 - and I'm guessing that's most of us -- owes a huge debt of gratitude to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty for his visionary move, which is part of the larger Boreal Forest Conservation Initiative, a collaboration of conservation groups, First Nations and industry that aims to protect at least half of the 1.4 billion-acre Canadian boreal forest.

Here's how my good friend Jeff Wells of the Boreal Songbird Initiative put it on his blog this week, sending an open letter of thanks to McGuinty:

Jeff Wells (©Scott Weidensaul)

"I don’t know if you have ever heard the soft flutely song of a Swainson’s Thrush," Jeff wrote, "but try to imagine three million of them singing at once. That’s the sound emanating into the sky on a June morning from the number of Swainson’s Thrushes that would be found in the 55 million acres of northern Ontario’s Boreal that you have just announced will now be protected. Even better yet, imagine 4.5 million renditions of the “Oh-sweet-Canada-Canada-Canada” song of the White-throated Sparrow echoing across the Boreal."

As Jeff went on to point out, the land that Ontario will permanently protect from timbering and mining is home to 5 million juncos, 4 million magnolia warblers, 3 million palm warblers and 2 million Tennessee warblers, just to name a few species.

The Boreal Forest Conservation Initiative is sweeping in its scope - but so is the forest its is so effectively protecting. The Canadian boreal is the largest intact forest left on the planet, bigger even than the Amazon. And while its southern fringes have been impacted by logging, roads and other development, most of it is still whole and functioning, home not only to birds but to grizzlies, wolves, caribou, moose, wild sheep and hundreds of Native communities. (The boreal, of course, also covers much of Alaska, where a significant portion is protected federal land.)

Two years ago, I had a chance to see some of the best of the boreal along with Jeff Wells, Pete and Linda Dunne, and National Geographic writer Mel White. We traveled up through the Northwest Territories, flying for hours across lake-studded muskeg forest, knowing that every one of the thousands of ponds we saw was home to scoters, loons, grebes and scaup, that every glance out the window of the small plane encompassed the territories of thousands of blackpoll or yellow-rumped warblers. It was staggering.

Déline at daybreak (©Scott Weidensaul)

At the small Sahtú Dene village of Déline, on the shores of Great Bear Lake, we watched an incredible dawn procession of birds pouring out of the north - Pacific loons, Arctic terns, shorebirds and sea ducks of a dozen species, and waves of warblers and sparrows in numbers beyond counting. At one point, a parasitic jaeger chased a lesser yellowlegs across the immense lake, only giving up when the smaller bird took refuge in the underbrush almost at our feet.

The Northwest Territories is also undertaking a protected area strategy of its own, as part of the boreal initiative, with First Nations communities setting aside huge chunks of environmentally and culturally sensitive land before a new natural gas pipeline is built through the region.

Other provinces are taking note; this week, Manitoba's meager efforts were called "shameful" by conservationists there, who are hoping Ontario's leadership will spark equally significant moves elsewhere in the boreal region.

You can find a story from the Toronto Star about the Ontario land deal here. You can also read a piece I wrote in 2007 for The Nature Conservancy on the Boreal Forest Conservation Framework here.

And finally, you can send a note of thanks to Premier McGuinty via BSI's website -- something every American birder who reaps the benefits of the boreal forest should take a moment to do.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Hog Island memories

Lobstermen get a foggy start off Hog Island (©Scott Weidensaul)

The posts have been few and far between the past couple of months, because I've generally been far from a computer.

Case in point: I just wrapped up two weeks of teaching at the historic Hog Island Audubon Center on the midcoast of Maine, one of the prettiest spots on the planet, and a place where one can walk in the footsteps of giants like Roger Tory Peterson and Allan Cruickshank while watching blackburnian warblers and listening to loons.

I try to teach several sessions at Hog Island every year, including adult field ornithology – a week-long immersion into all things avian, from taxonomy and evolution to behavior and field ID. I've been blessed over the years to work with a stellar bunch of fellow instructors – Dr. Sara Morris from Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., one of the leading experts on migratory stopover in songbirds; Greg Budney, the curator of the Macaulay Library (formerly the Library of Natural Sounds) at Cornell; and Peter Vickery, grassland bird expert and one of Maine's top birders. (Field guide author Kenn Kaufman usually joins us, but couldn't make it this year.)

For a week, we took the 37 participants from inland forests and bogs full of warblers, thrushes and flycatchers, to offshore islands where we watched puffins, storm-petrels and even a handful of rare razorbills.

But the highlight of my time on Hog Island this year was the second week when, along with Maine state wildlife biologist Judy Camuso, I was an instructor for Coastal Maine Bird Studies, an ornithology session aimed at teen birders.

We had 13 terrific teenagers, ranging in age from 14 to 17, and from all over the country – New England, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Indiana and New Mexico. And beyond - one young man came from Chile, where his parents are working.

Some were avid birders; Cole leads Audubon field trips back home in New Mexico, and Jack, the fellow living in Chile, regaled us with stories of birding across South and Central America. Others, like Maine resident Karl and Pennsylvanian Kelsi, were absolute beginners wanting to know more. All were eager to learn, and had enough energy that they made it hard for a certified old fart like me to keep up. (I'm not posting any photos of the kids, by the way, out of respect for their privacy.)

We started with an all-day land trip, beginning in the fog at the village of Medomak, where Peterson and Cruickshank laid out a walking route through forest, meadows and marsh back in 1936, which Hog Island campers have been revisiting ever since. We watched a Baltimore oriole pair feed their chicks, listened the subtle differences in the trilled songs of swamp sparrows, pine warblers and juncos, and admired the newly opened flowers of hundreds of rose pogonia orchids. Later, we ate lunch overlooking meadows along the Damariscotta River, where bobolinks displayed and sang, and beat the afternoon thunderstorms on Clarry Hill, a huge blueberry barrens where we found vesper and savannah sparrows, but struck out on upland sandpipers.

A fledgling bald eagle buzzes the wildflower meadow (©Scott Weidensaul)

The next day we had great looks at Canada warblers, northern waterthrush and nesting yellow-bellied sapsuckers on the mainland (including a recently fledged bald eagle that all but buzzed us), but the real treat came in the afternoon. Transferring from the camp's smaller boat Osprey III into a traditional cod-fishing dory, we rowed ashore onto Ross Island, a major nesting colony for gulls. It was a tricky, wet landing in the lively surf, but for the next hour and a half, we carefully moved through the colony, observing active nests and examining chicks, discussing the behavior of herring and great black-backed gulls nesting around us by the hundreds.

A herring gull family on Ross Island (©Scott Weidensaul)

It was a terrific opportunity to hash through the advantages and disadvantages of coloniality, and to review the impact that humans have had on seabirds – the way gulls were almost exterminated for the feather trade a century ago, for example, but now are so numerous (because of the abundance of food we inadvertently provide) that they impede the recovery of terns and other rare seabirds.

The teens had an object lesson in this the next day, when the camp's larger boat, Puffin V, pushed through dense fog to Eastern Egg Rock, which lies on the outer edge of Muscongus Bay, nine miles from shore. Here, biologists have spent decades reintroducing Atlantic puffins, and building up a large nesting colony of common, Arctic and endangered roseate terns that they must safeguard from gulls. We saw no razorbills that day, but the fog kept the nesting birds close to the island, and the teens were thrilled with close-up views of dozens of puffins – as well as a single black tern, a real rarity out there.
A black guillemot takes off at Eastern Egg Rock (©Scott Weidensaul)

July 4 found us in Acadia National Park, which was swarming with holiday tourists. We managed to find some of the hidden, less-visited jewels of the park, and although high winds made the birding pretty slow, we had some thrills, including fine views of a female gray seal hunting around a lobster boat – a life mammal for almost everyone in the group.

The last day, though, was one of the best. Under a glorious blue Fourth of July sky, we headed back out into the bay to visit Wreck Island, home to a large great blue heron colony. With us was Birdchaser blogger Rob Fergus, with the National Audubon science office. We again eased ourselves into the dory, rolling in the low swells, and first mate Eric Snyder nosed her among the rockweed-covered boulders. Forming a human chain over the treacherous rocks, we moved everyone up onto the cobblestone beach, speaking only in whispers, then headed into the woods in complete silence.

Entering the forest on Wreck always make me think of stepping back to a Cretaceous jungle – the heavy ammonia smell in the air, the riot of brambles and gooseberry under the trees, and most of all the weird croaks and clatters filling our ears. Looking up, we could see dozens of nests all around us, with gangly heron chicks, just a week or two from fledging, staring back at us.

We communicated with hand signals, or an occasional comment whispered directly into an ear. But mostly we just stood and watched, drinking in the spectacle. Adult herons flew in, their bellies heavy with fish to regurgitate to the chicks – and we also found the remains of chicks that had fallen (or been pushed) from the nest, becoming prey to great horned owls whose feathers we found snagged in the underbrush. Judy found a fresh owl pellet, which when opened revealed the skull of a Leach's storm-petrel – a swallow-sized seabird that nests on these outer islands, coming and going under cover of darkness that protects it from gulls, but not owls.
Eric brings in the dory at Wreck Island (©Scott Weidensaul)

Reluctantly, we doried back to the Osprey III, the silence this time among the kids the result of reflection rather than my warning. But once the engines kicked on, it was as though someone had flipped a different switch, and all 13 of the teens started talking at once, trying to express the remarkable experience they'd just had.

(Click here if you're interested in more information about the Hog Island Audubon Center. A few spaces for the Sept. 14-20 bird migration and conservation session for adults remain.)

I'm going to be out of touch again for a while, but should have some great material when I get back (think Inupiat, the Bering Strait and polar bears).