The “melting pot” of Hawaiian birds

Just back from 10 days in Hawaii, a region with one of the most screwed-up ecosystems on the planet. As a birder, it was certainly a fun trip, as I added at least 30 “new” species to my life list. Of those 30, however, only one-third were native to the Hawaiian Islands.  No area of the United States has suffered a greater loss of native bird species than Hawaii.  The reasons are many, but they all have a man-made origin. The devastation began when the islands first became populated, and ecosystems were directly impacted by mankind. Forest clearing and the introduction of fire certainly had an impact, but other anthropogenic factors were the most devastating.

There are no native reptiles or amphibians on the Hawaiian islands, and only one native mammal, a species of bat.  However, with the arrival of man came rats and mice, cats, as well as introduced mongoose that were brought to the islands to control the rat populations.  These introduced mammals all were new predators of eggs, young birds, and even adult birds…threats Hawaiian birds had never had to deal with before. Introduced pigs, goats, and sheep devastated the natural vegetation of the islands.  Disease also has had a devastating impact on Hawaiian birds, as introduced avian malaria has wiped out entire species and devastated other species.  Introduced plant species have changed the vegetative composition of Hawaiian ecosystems, and even now, a new fungal disease has started to wipe out Hawaii’s Ohi’a tree, one of the most common and important forest tree’s for Hawaiian birds.

For someone from South Dakota, it’s thus a fun place to bird, but it’s also sobering. Hawaii has certainly become a “melting pot”, regional ecosystem experiment, where birds, plants, and diseases from all regions of the globe are thrown together…winner take all. Unfortunately it’s the native plants and animals that are losing in this experiment.

Here’s a sampling of some of the birds I was able to photograph, and a bit of information as to where these now well-established “Hawaiian” birds actually originated.

Hawai'i 'Amakihi - Chlorodrepanis virens

An ‘Amakihi, specifically, the Hawai’i subspecies. Similar subspecies are found on O’ahu and Kaua’i. This is a native species. They are one of a very few Hawaiian honeycreeper species that has continued to thrive, despite all the ecosystem changes. They were quite common on our visit to the Big Island, and I found them on both the dry and wet sides of the island.

Erckel's Francolin - Pternistis erckelii

There’s no shortage of “gamebirds” now on the big island. Many species of pheasant, quail, and other similar birds have been introduced. This was one of the most common that we saw on Hawai’i, an Erckel’s Francolin. We found them on dry grasslands on the western side of the island, forest edges, and even forest clearings in the wet rain-forests of the eastern side of the island. Nasty looking spurs on these guys…I’d bet the males use them to good effect during the breeding season.

Yellow-billed Cardinal - Paroaria capitata

20 years ago, before I started birding, my wife and I visited O’ahu. Even as a non-birder I noticed the striking Red-crested Cardinals. It wasn’t until I became a birder a few years later that I learned they weren’t native. Hawai’i island doesn’t have the Red-crested Cardinal, but they do have a similar looking bird, the Yellow-billed Cardinal. They are native to parts of South America, but were introduced to Hawai’i several decades ago. They’re not actually closely related to cardinals, they are a species of tanager. We found them in a variety of settings, all over the island, but they certainly have adapted well to a human presence. They were almost ubiquitous in and around suburban settings and parks.

Photo of White-tailed Tropicbird - Phaethon lepturus

This one was a huge surprise to me! We were visiting Kilauea’s main crater, an active crater with a lava lake at the bottom, when I saw multiple white birds streaking through the sky in and around the crater rim. I never got close enough for a great photo, but it was quite obvious what they were once I got my binoculars on them…White-tailed Tropicbirds! I certainly wasn’t expecting to find a tropical sea-bird flying around the crater of an inland volcano, but these guys actually nest on the cliff walls in and around Kilauea’s summit! They are native, and given their unique habitat choice on the island, they are one species not heavily impacted by anthropogenic activity. Their choice of nesting location shields them from the rats, cats, and mongoose that have devastated other nesting birds on the islands.

Photo of African Silverbill - Euodice cantans

One of the best places I birded on Hawai’i was on the slopes of Mauna Loa, between 5,000 and 7,500 feet above sea level. There were many native mamane trees on the dry eastern slopes, and these dry woodlands with scattered trees and grasses were wonderful for a wide variety of species. This included native Amakihi and Elepaio, but also included MANY non-native species. That included roving flocks of these guys, African Silverbills. They are a native of western and central Africa.

Photo of Red-billed Leiothrix - Leiothrix lutea

Another non-native species that was common in the dry mamane forests on the slopes of Mauna Loa…Red-billed Leiothrix. Beautiful birds, these guys were mingling with mixed flocks of other small birds, including the native Amakihi. They are native to southern China and the Himalayan region.

Photo of 'Apapane - Himatione sanguinea

Like the Amakihi, this is another of the few native Hawaiian honeycreepers that seems to still be doing well…the ‘Apapane. They are still quite common and widespread on Hawai’i. Wherever we found Ohi’a trees on the wet, eastern side of the island, we found ‘Apapane. Alas though, even the few native Hawaiian honeycreeper species that have survived are faced with devastating population losses. The Ohi’a tree on which these guys depend (shown in this photo) have been subjected to a new fungal disease that just started devastating Ohi’a populations on Hawai’i in 2010. In the few short years since, large areas of Ohi’a-dominated forest have been affected. We ourselves saw huge swaths of forests with all the large Ohi’a trees dead. So far the fungus is confined to the island of Hawai’i, but it’s a horrible development for Hawaiian birds that are so dependent upon this plant.

Photo of Grey Francolin - Francolinus pondicerianus

Another of the non-native Francolin’s, this is a Grey Francolin. These weren’t nearly as common as the Erckel’s Francolin, and they seem to be restricted to the dry lowlands on the western side of Hawai’i. I also saw a number of Black Francolin on Hawai’i, but wasn’t able to get a photo of them. The Grey Francolin shown here is native to southern Asia.

Photo of Nene - Branta sandvicensis

The state bird of Hawai’i, the Nene. We saw them flying over on occasion, but the ONLY place we ever saw them on the ground? Golf courses. Nene nearly went extinct several decades ago until captive breeding was used to rebuild the population. Despite seeing them on a number of occasions on Hawai’i, it’s not a complete conservation success story. Populations on the main island of Hawai’i are still likely not self-sustaining. As ground nesters, eggs and young are extremely susceptible to predation from rats, cats, and mongoose. Even brooding adult birds may be attacked. Without captive breeding, it is unlikely the species would survive on Hawai’i.

Photo of Zebra Dove - Geopelia striata

A Zebra Dove sitting on a fenceline. A native of southeastern Asia, these guys are EVERYWHERE on the Big Island, particularly in and around urban and suburban areas. Zebra Doves have pretty much become the equivalent of Rock Pigeons in the continental United States…a species that is found everywhere humans are found.

Photo of Yellow-fronted Canary - Serinus mozambicus

A beautiful, yet non-native, Yellow-fronted Canary. They are native to sub-Saharan Africa. We found them in a number of habitats, but particularly on woodland edges with grasses and grass seed available nearby.

Photo of Black Noddy - Anous minutus

A Black Noddy…specifically the Hawaiian sub-species, known locally as the Noio. When visiting southern part of Hawai’i, we saw them on multiple occasions, cruising in and around the coastal seacliffs upon which they nest. A native seabird that seems to still be doing quite well.

Photo of Saffron Finch - Sicalis flaveola

One of the first birds we saw after getting off the plane in Kona were a pair of absolutely gorgeous Saffron Finches near the Airport. Beautiful, found in many places all over the island, but alas, not native. They are a tanager relative native to South America.

Photo of Eurasian Skylark - Alauda arvensis

European settlers introduced some of their favorite European species in multiple locations throughout the globe. One of their favorite birds from “back home” were Eurasian Skylarks, a song known for their melodious songs. They are now well established on the Big Island, and we saw them EVERYWHERE on the grassy western slopes of Mauna Loa.

Photo of Pueo - Asio flammeus sandwichensis

For our first 4 days on the island, we stayed at an area about 20 miles north of the Kona airport. Despite driving across several parts of the dry, western part of the island in those first few days, it took THREE FULL DAYS before I finally saw a bird that was actually NATIVE to Hawai’i. That bird was a “Pueo”, the local name for the only native owl found in the Hawaiian islands. Most think it’s a subspecies of the Short-eared Owl. There was one road on the western slopes of Mauna Loa where I had incredible success finding these guys, including 5 individual owls in one 8-mile section of road one evening.

Photo of Pueo - Asio flammeus sandwichensis

Both the first and last native bird photos of our trip were of a Pueo. This was our last evening on the island, with a lone Pueo sitting on a fence post on the western slopes of Mauna Loa.


Evolution in the blink of an eye…

Prairie Deer Mouse - Peromyscus maniculatus bairdii

The cool thing about science and nature is that interesting stories are all around us. The tiny Deer Mouse, shown here, has overcome long odds, with the vast majority of its historical habitat gone. However, through some remarkable, fast-track evolutionary adaptation, they’re now able to cope with their new world. Photo by Gregory Smith.

It’s been a busy last week, without any time for birding or photography.  Or blogging, for that matter. I was down in Nebraska for a few days, mixing work and pleasure. The “pleasure” part was my fantasy baseball draft in Omaha Saturday.  Our fantasy league is likely one of the longest running leagues in the country, going back to 1985 during our freshman year in college, when fantasy baseball was still very new.  What’s great about it is that many of the original league members are still participating! It’s great fun, not only the draft itself, but catching up with old college friends.

The “work” part of my Nebraska trip was participation in the 2017 Great Plains Symposium, on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Much like the baseball draft, the symposium too was like stepping back in time, as I reconnected with some of my old college professors who were participating in the symposium. The focus of the symposium was “Flat Places, Deep Identities: Mapping Nebraska and the Great Plains”.  I gave a talk one some of the work I’ve been doing, mapping past, present, and potential future landscapes in the Great Plains.  It was a great symposium, a little different kind of crowd than I’m used to.  Given the work I do, most of the conferences and symposiums I attend deal with the physical sciences. This conference melded mapping, history, socioeconomics, and other social sciences that I’m not exposed to as much.  It was quite fascinating, particularly hearing about the history of Nebraska, using maps to help tell the “story” of change over time.

As part of the symposium “goodies”, participants were given a copy of The New Territory, a quarterly magazine that focuses on Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.  I admit I’d never heard of the publication before. The content fits quite well with the focus of the symposium itself, with many human interest stories about the geography and people of the region. As a physical scientist, one piece caught my eye though. entitled “Evolution in the Cornbelt“, by Conor Gearin. The story focuses on the Prairie Deer Mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus bairdii), a common little fellow from the Great Plains that feeds on the tiny seeds of grasses and weeds in the prairies.

Researchers at Iowa State and Purdue University were curious how a species so adapted to life in the Great Plains has been able to thrive, given that >99% of the original tallgrass prairie in the region has been plowed under, converted to agriculture, urban land, or other man-made land uses. The grass and weed seeds the Prairie Deer Mouse had historically fed on were much more sparsely distributed than they were 200 years ago, yet the species is still quite common.  They started field work to assess the distribution of the nice, including setting up artificial nest boxes that the mice could use for habitation and food storage.  The results astounded the scientists.

Prior to beginning the work, it was assumed that deer mice populations would be the highest in “edge” habitat, areas such as grassy ditches, fencelines, or other “boundary” conditions where remnants of their traditional food sources may still be found.  However, they quickly found that the highest populations of deer mice were often right in the middle of very large corn and soybean fields, far from any traditional food source.  Clearly, Prairie Deer Mice had adapted to an agricultural setting, and were feeding on man-raised grains and pulses. The question was, how could a tiny mouse that was so well adapted to eating tiny grass and weed seeds shift gears and start feeding on corn and soybeans?

The researchers found historical deer mice in historical museums, creatures that had been preserved with taxidermy. Anatomical comparisons with Prairie Deer Mice from today found some stark differences.  The older specimens were well adapted to feeding on tiny seeds, with small mandibles and jaws that didn’t open very far.  The modern specimens had 1) significantly longer lower mandibles, 2) structural changes that allowed their mouths to open wider, and 3) larger upper mandibles. Accompanying the larger mandibles were more robust “hardware” for linking bone to muscle, with beefed up jaw muscles that enabled the tiny mice to feed on much larger food items than they had historically.

In the blink of an eye, geologically speaking, Prairie Deer Mice had shown measurable, obvious evolutionary adaptation in response to their new environment and food sources.  The researchers found high densities of deer mice in the middle of corn and soybean fields.  Some inevitably will succumb to the mechanical tools humans use to turn and manipulate the soil, but with such a rich, dense, bountiful food source, the mice had quickly evolved to fill the new ecological niche and feed on corn and soybean waste.

For a scientist like myself, I’m completely dumbfounded by the sheer ignorance of those who doubt science…who doubt climate change is real…who doubt in evolution.  The actual empirical evidence is overwhelming, conclusive, and “in-your-face”, for those who bother to open their eyes to the world around them. It’s a fascinating story, and the writer (Conor Gearin) did a great job not only summarizing the research, but telling it in a true story-teller’s fashion.  To me, this is exactly the kind of story, and writing style, that could perhaps help to turn the tide against the anti-science wave that seems to be cresting in the U.S. right now. Great story, and The New Territory really looks like a publication that’s worth subscribing to or picking up if you get a chance.

Grand River National Grasslands, Harding County, South Dakota

Expansive grasslands of the Grand River National Grasslands, in Harding County, in far northwestern South Dakota. Grassland habitat like this is greatly reduced in the Great Plains. However, that doesn’t seem to be a problem for one species, the Prairie Deer Mouse, who evidently can do quite well without an actual “prairie”.

Meteors in your Gutter, Pollinating Crops with Drones, and more science news – Week of March 12, 2017

This week, let’s try something novel…science news, sans politics.  It seems that politicians in this country have decided we can live without science, so for one week, I’ll try a “news” post where science avoids politics.

Long-horned Bee - Melissodes

A Long-horned Bee, doing what bees do best…collecting nectar and in the process, distributing pollen. If one Japanese researcher has his way, we could soon be using drones to augment nature’s pollinators. A personal comment…let’s hope this never comes to pass.

Who Needs Honeybees when we have Drones? — A first…TWO drone-related stories in one week! While the story above about using drones to acoustically sample birds may seem practical, I admit I don’t see much of a future for this application!  Eijiro Miyako, a chemist in Tsukuba, Japan, was trying to make an electricity-conducting gel in 2007, an endeavor that wasn’t working. His concoction was stored, until 8 years later when he dropped the jar while cleaning out a drawer. Miyako certainly thinks differently than I do, because upon cleaning up the sticky substance, he wondered, “could this be used to pollinate plants”? The decline of honeybees and other pollinators is well-noted, something of potentially devastating consequences to not only natural ecosystems, but to our very survival, given the need to pollinate crops.  Miyako started working with methodologies to pollinate crops, starting out by coating ants with his sticky gel to see if their movements would attract and distribute pollen. It kind of worked, but didn’t seem practical, so he eventually started working with drones.  The drones have a fuzzy material that collects pollen and can redistribute it when the drone brushes up against another plant.  His eventually plan? Build a fleet of 100 or so drones, use GPS and artificial intelligence, and set them loose in a field to pollinate the crops. Well…I guess we all need dreamers, and given how science works, who knows what practical application may come of Miyako’s work?  But hey, how about instead of developing drone pollinators, we instead focus on preserving the natural pollinators we have now?

Norwegian Gutters Clogged with Meteors!! — Jon Larsen, a Norwegian jazz musician, has an interesting hobby.  He’s devoted much of his free time in recent years to looking through material in gutters, downspouts, and drains, searching for extraterrestrial visitors.  Tons of material from outer space enters Earth’s atmosphere every day, much of it microscopic. Larsen has searched through debris in urban settings in search of these microscopic visitors.  His passion has been published in the journal Geology, with a paper that discusses the identification of over 500 “large micrometeorites” from rooftops and other urban settings. Larsen has learned the typical characteristics of micrometeorites, stating “Once I knew what to look for, I found them everywhere”.  Next time you’re up on the roof, cleaning leaves out of those gutters, do it with a smile and a sense of wonder, because it’s extremely likely that you’re cleaning up cosmic debris along with those leaves.

Normalized Difference Vegetation Index - Great Britain

Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) for Great Britain, showing relative “greenness” of vegetation at the time. Researchers are studying linkages between NDVI, tree ring width, and volcanic activity to see if vegetation is responding to pre-eruption conditions. Potentially, such changes could be used to help predict an eruption.

Predicting Volcano Eruptions from…the greenness of trees? — I believe this is a poorly written article, but the premise behind it is VERY cool for a scientist like myself who works with satellite imagery.  The title of the story is very poor and somewhat misleading, stating “Can tree rings predict volcanic eruptions”? The story focuses on the work of scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow, and Landscape Research. In 1973, scientists noted an anomaly on satellite images along Mount Etna’s flank, a streak of trees that were greener than normal.  With satellite imagery, we can measure a “Normalized Vegetation Difference Index”, a measure of live green vegetation.  NDVI measurements in 1973 satellite observations were high along a streak on the volcanos flank, and less than a year later, a flank eruption occurred right along that very streak.  These scientists hypothesized that measuring tree rings from 1973 would also show an anomaly, and thus the title of this story that tree rings could “predict volcanic eruptions”.  However, the actual results showed no difference in tree ring width during that time frame. Given the relationship between tree ring width and how “good” a year a tree has had, I can see why continued research is warranted to try to find relationships between increased NDVI greenness, and tree ring width, and see if other areas have experienced changes prior to a volcanic eruption.  As it is, there’s not much in this initial research that proves a strong linkage.

Spying on Birds with Drones — On-site surveys of birds is a time-intensive and potentially expensive endeavor if trying to systematically survey birds across broad regions. Researchers at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania investigated the use of drones for conducting acoustical surveys of birds. They tried flying a drone and extracting acoustical information from a recorder on the drone, and found that the method was able to sample bird presence for about as large a region as a human observer performing a survey.  They have some kinks to work out, primarily related to the noise of the drone masking some of the low-frequency bird noises (think cooing of a Mourning Dove), but they believe technological innovation will soon make drones quieter and more efficient at sampling bird acoustics. I admit I do kind of roll my eyes when I hear people talking about trying to use drones for photography, and for science applications, because in many cases it seems like a stunt more than an actual practical application.  Gettysburg College may be proving me wrong, as this actually does sound like an interesting use of drone technology.

American Chestnut - Wild Survivor

One of the VERY few wild, mature American Chestnut trees left in the wild. Trees such as this may be resistant to blight, and are being used in efforts to develop a blight-resistant stock for eventual transplantation in the wild. Genetic modification is also being done to introduce Chestnut Blight resistant genes in tree stocks.

American Chestnut, Returning to a Forest Near You? — I often wonder what it would be like to travel back in time, to visit locations before they were touched by man. In the United States, the entire eastern half of the country was once dominated by forest land. While forest cutting started in earnest in the 1800s and even earlier in some locations, remaining deciduous forests by 1900 were still populated by 3 to 4 billion American Chestnut trees. It is estimated that one-quarter of trees in the Appalachians were American Chestnuts.  The American Chestnut was a prolific nut producer, with mast from the trees supporting deer, turkeys, bears, and other wildlife, including the now extinct Passenger Pigeon.  In 1904 a fungal blight was discovered, a disease that eventually wiped out nearly every wild American Chestnut. Asiatic Chestnut trees were imported into the country, but with them came an Asian bark fungus that was lethal to American Chestnuts. The disease spread rapidly, killing every American Chestnut tree in its path.  It is now estimated that fewer than 100 trees of any size are left in their former range. Root systems of surviving trees still send up shoots, but the blight infects the trees as they mature, resulting in practically no American Chestnut stems over 10-years old in the wild.  This story is focused on efforts to genetically modify the American Chestnut to include resistance to the blight. 30 years of research has resulted in the introduction of a gene from wheat that makes the trees able to withstand the blight. They hope to gain approval to publicly distribute the trees within 5 years.However, it will still be a long process to repopulate Eastern forests with American Chestnut. The researchers want to cross-pollinate the blight resistant trees with native wild tree stock. Half of the offspring will be blight resistant, and genetic diversity will be much improved over the current research tree stock.  We’re at the start of a VERY long process to restore the tree to the wild, but hopefully our great-great grandchildren will be able to enjoy the same Eastern forest trees that existed prior to 1900.

10 years until “Snowball Earth” — I admit my scientist side geeks out when I read a story like this, as it’s just so cool to think of the physical changes that have, can, and will again happen to our Earth.  Of course the absolutely catastrophic consequences for mankind put a bit of a damper on that excitement!  Harvard scientists have pinpointed the circumstances that led to “Snowball Earth”, a period about 717 million years ago where the Earth was covered in ice from pole-to-pole.  Models suggest that the climate destabilization that plunged the Earth into polar hell could have happened in a blink of an eye in geologic time. Massive volcanic eruptions back then could have ejected enough aerosols into the atmosphere in just a 10-year period to initiate the rapid freeze.  Don’t worry, it’s not a single volcanic eruption that’s capable of such a long-term change, but instead the kind of massive eruptions that mankind hasn’t experienced in our history. 717 million years ago, it was a string of volcanic eruptions across what’s now Canada and Greenland that set off the freeze.  As I said, from a scientific standpoint, fascinating to think what could happen, but it also points out the fragile balance of our climate system.  “Snowball Earth” happened because of runaway cooling and feedbacks that amplified and accelerated the cooling, primarily with increased ice increasing reflectance of solar radiation in a self-reinforcing feedback loop.  Right now we’re playing a game of “chicken” with our climate system, doing the exact opposite, and removing that ice in a self-reinforcing feedback loop that’s amplifying warming.

Snowy Bison

The Bison, invasive species that forever changed North America! Well, if we were around about 150,000 years ago, they would have been considered an invasive species, one that transformed grassland ecosystems of North America.

Bison Contributing to Mammoth Decline?  — OK, my chosen title here doesn’t reflect the purpose of this research, but after reading the story it did make me curious…did Bison contribute to the decline and eventual extinction of the Mammoth? The story used DNA analysis to establish that the ancestors of North American Bison first arrived between 130,000 and 190,000 years ago.  As the story notes, in this case, Bison were the invasive species, rapidly colonizing North America and forever changing the grassland ecosystems of the continent.  It does make me wonder…if not for the establishment of the Bison as a primary grazer in North America, would the Mammoth and other North American megafauna have been better positioned to withstand climate change and the establishment of man? Interesting story, and a story that shows that not all “invasive species” are those that are introduced by mankind.

Managing Diabetes with your Sweat — Especially as a family that deals with the consequences of Juvenile Diabetes, we’re quite familiar with the frequent finger prick to check glucose levels in blood. Researchers in South Korea have developed a prototype glucose sensing and insulin delivery device that looks like an arm cuff.  Instead of measuring blood glucose, it measures glucose in sweat. It’s not just these guys, there are also other researchers who are looking at measuring glucose levels in tears. There certainly have been many technological advances and devices for testing and treating diabetics, innovations that are certainly welcome! I just wish there were some real advances on actually treating the disease, and not just the symptoms.

Losing the Rainforests…and South Dakota habitat

This week the New York Times had a wonderful (as always), yet sad piece about deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Approximately 360,000 acres in the region were deforested every year during the 1990s, a number that jumped to 660,000 acres a year during the early 2000s.  A massive push to slow deforestation rates occurred in the 2000s, temporarily slowing the rate of deforestation.  However, in the last few years the deforestation rate has skyrocketed, to over 850,000 acres every year, an area the size of Rhode Island. Every. Year.  Clearly that’s not sustainable.  Even the supposed “success” in the mid-2000s of slowing the rate of deforestation only “slowed” it, it certainly didn’t stop it or reverse the trend.  That’s the world we live in now, where SLOWING the inexorable loss of habitat is considered a major conservation success story, even if those slower rates still would have wiped out most of the rainforest during this century.

We don’t have rainforests in South Dakota.  From a birder’s perspective, we don’t have much bird habitat whatsoever in the eastern part of the state, given the preponderance of corn and soybeans that takes up the vast majority of the landscape.  Still, as a birder, I have reveled in the little reservoir pockets of remaining habitat, small micro-habitats where birds have thrived, despite the massive use of the landscape for agricultural production.  I used to bring my camera with me EVERYWHERE.  Every day when I went to work, my camera came with me.  I would stop at these little pockets of habitat, and take bird photos. Over the years, I’ve gotten some truly wonderful photographs in these small remaining pockets of habitat.

I don’t bring my camera with me to work any more. I don’t bring my camera with me when I run errands. In fact, I don’t do nearly as much birding right around Brandon and Sioux Falls as I used.  Much of the reason is that many of my former little micro-habitat “hotspots” are gone, something that’s just happened in the last several years.  There have been multiple reasons behind it.  The first is simple economics…with demand for corn and soybeans, farmers are cultivating every possible patch of land to maximize production. Fence rows, shelter belts, and other little pockets of habitat are being plowed under to expand planted acreage. There have also been active “safety” programs in the last few years to clear brush and trees from the edges of the roads.  It’s been a truly massive project, with roads all over the state undergoing this kind of “grooming”, removing habitat that is anywhere close to road edges.

We don’t have the rainforest like the Amazon, but habitat loss is having an impact right here in South Dakota.  Here are some small, and some larger, examples of what’s happening with habitat change in South Dakota, and how it’s affecting bird species. Bird photos accompanying each image are some of the actual bird photos I’ve gotten from each location over the years.

Ditch Road - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ditch Road, just north of Sioux Falls in Minnehaha County. There’s a stretch of road that runs over 5 miles that has a straight drainage ditch running along side it. In the last year, nearly all of the thick trees and shrubs that were found between the road and the waterway have been removed (the area encircled in red shows the vegetation that used to be there). It’s part of the aforementioned “safety” program to remove things that people could evidently crash into and get hurt.  (I always thought the point of driving was to stay ON the road). With the water and vegetation, it used to be an absolutely wonderful spot for songbirds and even some waterfowl, particularly in migration.  Warblers, Vireos, and Chickadees and Nuthatches, many woodpeckers, and other songbird species were often found here.  Not any more…

Big Sioux Recreation Area near Brandon, South Dakota

Big Sioux Recreation near Brandon, South Dakota – One that’s near and dear to my heart, given that we live on the edge of Brandon across the street from the park (house shown above). One of the best places to bird in the park used to be right amidst the campground areas themselves. The looped road shown above was lined with cedar trees, and thick brush separated many of the camping stalls from each other. The image above shows what it used to look like. The cedars in particular really attracted many birds, including one memorable winter when a hoarde of about 20 Long-eared Owls took up residence in the Campground (see photo above). In the last 2 years, all of the cedars have been removed from the campground area, as have most of the shrubs that separated camping stalls. If you want to play football? Thanks to all the vegetation clearing, it’s now MUCH more open in the campgrounds! If you really LOVE being close to other people while camping, with no pesky vegetation to get between you and the next guy, you’ll love the changes!  If you’re a bird lover? Not so much…

Minnehaha County Wetland

Minnehaha County Wetland — This one has a Google Earth image that actually catches the transformation as it happened. This is a small area in northern Minnehaha County on 253rd Street and near 481st Avenue.  Prior to 2015, the area in red was a mix of wetland, damp grasses, and weedy patches.  It was an absolutely WONDERFUL place to bird, a little patch of wet, weedy habitat that attracted species like Le Conte’s Sparrows, Swamp Sparrows, Bobolinks, Sedge Wrens, Marsh Wrens, and many other birds. In 2015, the owner installed drain tile, shown as the lines that run through the image above.  The drain tile dried out the land so it could be used for cropland, and today, this entire patch is a corn field. Drain tile installation has been RAMPANT in eastern South Dakota in the last few years. In some cases it’s been done to improve conditions on existing cropland.  In many areas though, like this, it’s being installed in areas that are naturally too poor to support crops, and need an artificial drainage system.  It’s hard to have Swamp Sparrows in an area, if you have no “swamp”.

South Dakota Shelterbelt

Shelterbelts – There aren’t a lot of woodlands and forests in eastern South Dakota, but the variety of birdlife in these little oases of trees can be truly astounding.  During migration they are definite bird “traps”, with tired songbirds stopped to rest and feed in these areas before continuing on with their migration. The photos are just examples of what you can find in these shelterbelts, as I haven’t birded this specific location before. However, it’s a great example of what’s been going on in much of South Dakota. This is north of Sioux Falls, near the intersections of Highways 121 and 122. This shelterbelt had been there the entire 23+ years we’ve lived in South Dakota, and it had some very large mature, old trees.  That changed last year, when all of the woody vegetation in the entire area circled in red was removed. This last summer it was all a big open field, planted in corn. There are many places in eastern South Dakota where this is happening, as farmers try to compensate for lowered corn and soy prices in the last few years by planting more and more acres.

Increase in Cropland Cash Rents - 2009 to 2014

What’s behind South Dakota cropland gains? — So what’s driving the agricultural change in South Dakota?  Beyond the little micro-habitat examples given above, there are some very large swaths of grassland being converted to cropland, with some much of the new cropland on land that had never been plowed before. The map above gives you some indication of the economic forces driving cropland gains in the state, and the concomitant loss of vegetated habitats.  Some of the largest recent changes in cash rent values for cropland in recent years are concentrated right in eastern South Dakota. As this article states, South Dakota had the largest increases in overall cropland value from 2004 to 2014, an increase of over 350% in just 10 years as average cropland values rose from $734 an acre to over $3,400 an acre. Prices for the major crop commodities of corn and soy have softened substantially in recent years, but that seems to have driven an intensification of land use in some parts of the state, as farmers try to maximize production by expanding the acreage that they plant.

Grassland conversion in the Great Plains

Grassland Conversion in the Great Plains – In 2013, colleagues/acquaintances published a paper the summarized the recent loss of grassland and wetland in the northern Great Plains. The map above shows the percentage of grasslands in an area that were converted to soybeans or corn between 2006 and 2011. Southern Iowa is a bit misleading, given that this shows “percentage” change, and there wasn’t nearly as much grassland there in 2006 as there was in parts of eastern South Dakota.  It really has been the eastern Dakotas where a huge chunk of cropland gains in the U.S. have occurred in recent years.  From a birder’s perspective…it hasn’t been a happy story.  Click here for the journal paper from Chris Wright and Mike Wimberly.

Where did the Fort Pierre National Grasslands raptors go?

Central South Dakota - Raptor Sightings

Winter raptor sightings in central South Dakota over the last 5 years. The Fort Pierre National Grasslands themselves used to be “the” hotspot for winter raptors, including great chances for rarities like Gyrfalcons and Snowy Owls. In recent years, raptor numbers are incredibly low compared to areas just south of the Grasslands, in and around Presho and Kennebec. Click on the map above (or any other image) for a larger view.

I still vividly remember the first time I had ever visited the Fort Pierre National Grasslands.  It was 2000, and I had been bitten by the birding bug.  Hard. Much of my free time was spent birding and taking photos, and as a new birder, there certainly were plenty of “new” birds to discover, just around my home town of Brandon.  One of my friends at work was an avid, lifetime birder, and he not only helped with identification of the birds in my (quite poor!) early photos, but he also helped to stoke the birding fires.  That was very evident when reports came in of a Gyrfalcon on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands.  In the years since, the Grasslands have become known as a wonderful location for finding these very rare winter visitors, but at the time, it was something rather novel.  Given that my lifetime birder friend had never seen a Gyrfalcon, I knew this was something special for a birder and I was excited to try to find it. Thus began 16 winters of making periodic birding treks to the Grasslands.

It couldn’t have been easier on that first visit.  The famed “Pheasant Farm Gyrfalcon” was hanging around a farmstead that raised pheasants for hunting operations in the region.  I talked with Doug B. in Pierre, a great birding contact who also helped a lot in my early birding years, and he provided directions (we’re WELL before cell phones and google maps here!).  He had said that he was likely to be around that location early on a Saturday morning, so I made plans to get up ridiculously early and drive to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands and arrive at that spot just after dawn.

Rough-legged Hawk - Buteo lagopus

The ubiquitous Rough-Legged Hawk, once seemingly found on every other fence post and telephone pole on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. However, for the last 5 years, they’ve been curiously absent.

That cold December day came, I set the alarm, packed up my equipment at 4:30, and started the 3+ hour drive.  My timing was good, and I arrived on County Line Road right around 8:00 AM. As I reached an old abandoned schoolhouse that marked the location close to the pheasant farm, I saw a pair of cars.  I got out, saw Doug B., and asked if they’d seen the Gyrfalcon.  He smiled, and pointed to the top of a nearby telephone pole, and there it was!  My first Gyrfalcon, about as easy a “capture” as a birder can ever hope for with such a rarity!

From that day forward, I was hooked on the Grasslands.  Given that it’s about 3 1/2 hours from home, it’s not a love of convenience!  But I quickly learned to appreciate the isolation and beauty of the area. Most days on the Grasslands, you run into very few people, and there are times after a nice wet period where the beauty of the grasslands and flowers can be really spectacular.  But of course, it’s the birding that was the main attractant for me, and my GOODNESS what incredible birding there was.  Winter in the middle of South Dakota may not sound like a time for vibrant bird life, but the Fort Pierre National Grasslands was building a reputation as a magnet for raptors. This not only included one of the best chances in all of the lower 48 states to see a Gyrfalcon, but also a diverse list of other raptors that spent their winter months on the Grasslands.  Rough-legged Hawks were found in extremely high numbers, such that many times it was quite rare to drive more than half a mile on County Line Road and NOT see a Rough-legged Hawk hanging out on a telephone pole or fence post.  It’s the first place I saw a massive, incredibly powerful Golden Eagle.  It’s the place where I first saw a Ferruginous Hawk, a bird with such a brilliantly white underside that from a distance I thought I was about to see my first Snowy Owl.  It wasn’t that year, but later the Fort Pierre National Grasslands WERE the place I saw my first Snowy Owl, including one incredible year where Snowy Owls were practically as abundant as the ever-present Rough-legged Hawks. It’s the first place I saw a Prairie Falcon, a bird that for a long time was a photographic nemesis for me given their predilection for flushing and flying away whenever I got within 1/4 of a mile of one.  It’s the first place I saw a Short-eared Owl, a summer-time encounter where two adults were tending 4 younger birds.  That encounter concluded with an adult circling me for several minutes as I stood outside my car, resulting in one of my most memorable photo opportunities (and a new Canon DSLR camera body, thanks to the photo winning a nationwide Canon photo contest!).

Winter Sightings - Rough-legged Hawk

Winter sightings of just Rough-legged Hawks. Note the incredibly dense populations near I-90, and the sharp drop off towards the Grasslands in the north.

There have been days on the Grasslands where a full, complete day of birding could simply consist of driving back-and-forth on County Line Road and occasionally taking one of the small gravel roads that connect to it.  One could potentially stay within a relatively small driving area of 10 to 20 square miles, and find dozens, upon dozens, upon dozens of raptors.  Since that first day in 2000, I’ve had some of my most memorable photo experiences on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands in winter, including finally getting a close shot of a Prairie Falcon, having a curious first-year Gyrfalcon circle me in curiosity in much the same way that Short-eared Owl did years before, capturing a photo of the massive wingspan of a Golden Eagle as it takes flight, and finally capturing my first decent photos of a Snowy Owl.  During all my winter trips to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands, I learned to appreciate not only the Grasslands themselves, but the area south of the Grasslands.  I’d necessarily drive the I-90 corridor past Reliance, Kennebec, and Presho to get to the Grasslands themselves, and couldn’t help notice all the raptors in the area.  Soon, my “Grasslands” birding trips became “central South Dakota” birding trips, with days where I’d usually spend mornings in the Presho area and afternoons on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands.  Birding life was good, and many a cold, dismal, South Dakota winter was saved by the vibrant display of life that was always available on the Grasslands.

And then…something happened.  It started about 5 years ago, when I planned one of my “usual” winter trips to the area.  The first half of the trip was the same as always…plenty of raptors of all kinds in the Presho area, and plenty of photo opportunities.  However, as I headed north towards the Grasslands themselves, the birds disappeared. Given my past history of finding winter raptors on the Grasslands, I kept expecting the birds to show up around the next corner, but…they never did.  There was an occasional raptor here or there, primarily Golden Eagles or Ferruginous Hawks, but the incredible density of Rough-legged Hawks, the species that once made up a good 80% of all the raptors found on the Grasslands, was simply absent.  Almost TOTALLY absent.

Greater Prairie Chicken - Tympanuchus cupido

A Greater Prairie Chicken on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. Whatever the cause of the raptor decline on the Grasslands, it doesn’t appear to be because there’s been a noticeable decline of gamebirds.

That first winter after the raptors disappeared, I just speculated that something happened to the prey base that attracted the raptors. When driving the Grasslands, you always saw plenty of Ring-necked Pheasants, Greater Prairie Chickens, and Sharp-tailed Grouse.  There were several times where I’d sat in awe as a Gyrfalcon dive-bombed pheasants in search of a meal, and clearly the gamebirds in the area were one thing that attracted raptors.  There didn’t seem to be any obvious crash in the populations of these three gamebird species. The famed Pheasant Farm near County Line Road had stopped raising pheasants, but that’s such a local phenomenon that it couldn’t explain the drop in raptors across all the grasslands.  Indeed, this winter I visited the Grasslands a couple of days after Christmas, when a massive storm had coated the region in snow and crusty ice.  I ran across truly massive groups of Sharp-tailed Grouse and Greater Prairie Chickens, milling about in the open and looking for foraging spots in the ice-locked vegetation. Yet despite all the gamebirds that were out, raptors were again curiously absent.  I didn’t spot a single Rough-legged Hawk on the Grasslands themselves, despite easily finding over 30 earlier in the day down by Presho.

If not a decline in gamebirds, what else?  One factor that may play some role is the loss of some truly massive prairie dog towns in the region.  On County Line Road itself, there have always been a few locations for prairie dogs.  Not all raptors target prairie dogs, but Ferruginous Hawks certainly key in on prairie dogs, and prairie dog towns.  Over the last several years, many of the prairie dog towns in the area have disappeared.  Those outside of the administrative boundaries of the Fort Pierre National Grasslands themselves are fair game for poisoning, to clear the land of these “pests” (don’t get me started).  The largest prairie dog town I knew of in the area was on the east end of County Line Road, just outside of the Fort Pierre National Grasslands itself.  It stretched for almost a mile on the north side of the road, with more scattered spots on the south side of the road.  A few years ago, that entire area was clearly poisoned, and the massive colony is gone.

However, the decline in prairie dogs also fails to fully explain the decline in raptors.  There are NO prairie dog towns down by Presho and Kennebec, yet raptors of every kind are still found there in incredible numbers. Perhaps it’s a decline in the small rodent population in the area? For a raptor such as a Rough-legged Hawk, mice and voles make up a huge part of the diet.  Could there have been some cyclic decline in small rodent numbers on the grasslands?  That was my initial thought, but it’s been 5 years since the noticeable and sharp decline in raptor numbers.  You wouldn’t think some repetitive cycle of boom-and-bust rodent populations would be in “bust” mode for so long. Perhaps it’s related to the Prairie Dog poisoning? Could that have also had an impact on small rodents in the area?

A Black-tailed Prairie Dog. There’s little doubt number of these guys HAVE declined around the fringes of the Grasslands, given active poisoning programs.

One other major prey source in the area, particularly for Merlins and Prairie Falcons, are the sometimes huge flocks of Lapland Longspurs, Horned Larks, and Snow Buntings that are found in the area in the winter. The vast majority of Merlin sightings I’ve had in South Dakota have been on the Grasslands themselves or in the Presho area.  During my last trip over Christmas, the first raptor I saw at dawn was a Merlin munching on a freshly caught Horned Lark by Kennebec, and I’ve had numerous other occasions over the years where I’ve seen Merlins feeding on Horned Larks or Lapland Longspurs.   You do see roving flocks of Longspurs, Larks, and Snow Buntings on the Grasslands,certainly enough to capture the attention of a raptor that’s passing through, but the numbers of those potential prey species have seemed higher in the Presho/Kennebec area in recent years.

The maps that are shown in this post are indicative of the raptor numbers on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands vs. the I-90 corridor in recent years. These are all actual sightings made by myself over the last 5 years, and recorded in eBird.  During each and every trip I’ve made in the last 5 years, I take the same general routes. I start in the Kennebec/Presho area around dawn, by mid-morning start to work my way up through the Grasslands themselves, and then start to head back down south again by mid-afternoon. It’s clearly not a precise, spatially distributed sample of the space shown on the map, but over the last 5 years, I have driven most of the roads in a rectangle bounded by Highways 1806 and 273 on the east, an area typically no more than 5-8 miles south of I-90 south of Presho, and Kennebec, westward to Highway 83 and a few miles to the west (particularly around the Sheriff Dam and Richland Wildlife Area, and northward to County-Line Road itself and a few miles north of it.  Good roads are few and far between in parts of the area, particularly north-south roads that take you from Presho northward into the Grasslands.  As a result, the maps here tend to show the 2 major north-south gravel road that connect the two areas, as well as other more easily traveled roads in the area.

Gyrfalcon - Falco rusticolus

A Gyrfalcon taken during the “Golden Years” on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. This is a very dark-phase juvenile, and I’ve never seen one quite like this. The Grasslands may still be a good spot to try to find this mega-rarity, but it’s not an ideal spot for other winter raptors any more.

I wish I had eBird recordings for the “golden years” on the Grasslands, prior to this last 5 year period, something against which these maps could be compared.  I DO have a vast number of raptor photos taken on the Grasslands themselves from 2000 to present, with most of those from 2011 and earlier.  What’s clear from these maps, however, is just how sharp a delineation there is between the I-90 corridor, and raptor numbers to the north on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands themselves.  On the map at the top that shows all raptor sightings I’ve recorded, note the one north-south road that extends up from the I-90 corridor, about halfway between Presho and Vivian. That’s my main path for getting north, and while there are plenty of raptor sightings south of the Grasslands, those sightings drop off sharply almost exactly at the Grassland boundary itself.  On EVERY trip over the last 5 years, I will drive County line Road, an east-west road along the county boundary (visible towards the north side of these maps).  Once THE hotspot for raptors, in the last 5 years, I have very few raptor sightings of any kind along this road.  Rough-legged Hawk sightings on the Grasslands are incredibly small when compared to the area just to the south of the Grasslands. Red-tailed Hawks and Northern Harriers have always seemed to be much more abundant in the southern part of this area, but in recent years they are almost completely absent once you get 4 or 5 miles north of I-90.  Bald Eagles are often incredibly abundant in and around the Presho area.  I have had days where a dozen or more Bald Eagles are sitting in one concentrated area, and there are also at least 3 active Bald Eagle nests that I’ve found in and around the Presho and Kennebec area.  I have a few Bald Eagle sightings around the Grasslands, but that’s certainly dwarfed by how many have been found in and around Presho.

There are some species that are more evenly distributed in the area.  Golden Eagles are a species I’m almost certain to find on any trip to the area, and it doesn’t seem to matter whether I’m on the Grasslands, or in the Presho/Kennebec area.  Prairie Falcons also seem rather randomly distributed, as they seem rather unpredictable and likely to pop up just about anywhere on this map.  Ferruginous Hawks also seem rather even distributed.  Is there something in common about these species that may make them more likely to be found on the grasslands? Golden Eagles and Ferruginous Hawks are much more likely to key in on mammals, including rabbits and other larger mammals.  Perhaps if it is a population crash of small rodents, they’re still on the Grasslands as they don’t depend on those smaller prey as much as Rough-legged Hawks or other raptors. Prairie Falcons can feed on a variety of prey items, including small birds like Horned Larks, and even large birds like Greater Prairie Chickens.  Perhaps they too would be less sensitive to a decline in small rodent numbers.

I’ll continue to make my winter treks to the central part of the state, including visits to the Grasslands.  Given that the Grasslands themselves are still the location where I’ve seen most of my Gyrfalcons over the years (including the years prior to the data represented in these maps), that alone is clearly worth the time!  Hopefully over the next few years the Grasslands recover from whatever “ails” it in terms of supporting winter raptor numbers.

Money vs. the Endangered Species Act

Golden-cheeked Warbler - Setophaga chrysoparia

A Golden-cheeked Warbler (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife). A little bird less than 5″ long, with a big reputation in its native Texas, thanks to its endangered status. Short-term economic growth, or the very existence of a unique bird species…which side do you think many Texans (and others) fall?

For my main website, I’ve been working for, well, years in getting individual species pages created for all ~980 species that have been found in North America.  I only have like 70 left to make, and just added a new one for the Golden-cheeked Warbler.  They’re kind of a “holy grail” type bird for some birders, given the fact that they’re considered an endangered species, and are only found in a very tiny breeding range in the oak-juniper woodlands of central Texas.  While making the species page, I came across an all-too-typical story from the New York Times.

The Golden-cheeked Warbler is the only species that nests only in Texas.  They have a very unique, specific requirement for breeding…they simply must have the long, stringy bark from an Ashe Juniper tree for building their nests.  Not just any juniper tree will do, it has to be a relatively old Ashe Juniper for the bark to be usable by Golden-cheeked Warblers.  The mixed oak-juniper woodlands where Ashe Juniper is found covers a relatively small area in Texas. The species only has been found to nest in 33 counties in Texas, covering an area that is likely less than 350 square kilometers.  Some of it is pretty rugged country, but like pretty much every other location on the planet, it’s an area that’s impacted by a human presence.

During the twentieth century, substantial areas of habitat were cleared in the Golden-cheeked Warbler’s breeding range.  Simple residential and urban development was one cause of habitat loss, with residences, businesses, roads, and energy development all carving up parts of their range.  Agricultural land use also caused substantial habitat loss, with forests and woodlands being converted to open grazing lands.  The direct loss of Ashe Juniper directly affects the species’ ability to nest, but it’s more than the loss of their favorite nesting material tree. Habitat fragmentation and the creation of more “edge” habitat opens up woodlands and forest to a much higher presence of Brown-headed Cowbirds. As with many songbird species, cowbirds lay eggs in the nests of Golden-cheeked Warblers, with the warblers thus ending up raising cowbirds rather than raising their own young.

With such a small range and with declining numbers, the Golden-cheeked Warbler was an obvious candidate for the listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  They’ve been listed as endangered for more than 25 years (they were first listed in 1990), thanks to scientific studies that count the prevalence of the birds, and weigh the relative threats to well-being of the species in the future.  There’s no doubt the endangered status has benefited Golden-cheeked Warblers.  In the U.S. part of its range, several areas are protected and managed for Golden-cheeked Warbler habitat and breeding.  Brown-headed Cowbird trapping programs are in place to reduce the impact on Golden-cheeked Warblers.  Restrictions on land use and land-use conversion are in place to protect the remaining areas of highly suitable breeding habitat.  Threats to the species extend outside of the U.S. as well, with loss of habitat also a problem on the breeding grounds in Central America, yet protective programs are in place there as well.

The protections may have slowed the rate of habitat loss in the United States, but despite that, the species has continued a slow decline.  The bustling urban centers of Austin and San Antonio lie adjacent to their primary breeding habitat, as does Fort Hood, one of the largest military installations in the world.  Despite the obvious scientific evidence backing the need for protection of this unique species, the New York Times story gives a great summary of the political and economic pressures that are pushing back against conservation efforts for the bird.  Real estate and energy developers are powerful lobbyists that are pushing against the endangered status for the birds. As the New York Times story notes, representatives from those groups, people who have a vested economic interest in land use in the region, state that “bad science” was used in designating the species as endangered.  As a result, a petition is currently being pushed by these groups to delist the species.

Mind you, none of these representatives of the petition are actually scientists! Oh no, it’s very much like the battle over climate change, where people who know absolutely nothing about the scientific issue itself will speak of “bad science” in a vague, general sense.  There are no specifics, no hard-core evidence backing the claim that the species is doing well enough to be delisted.  Their claims all have a basis in economics, as removing the species from the ESA makes it much easier to exploit the landscape for real estate and energy development.  Another powerful agent that would prefer the species be delisted is the U.S. military.  Fort Hood lies in the heart of the breeding range of the Golden-cheeked Warbler, and has a very large area of prime breeding habitat within the installation.  The New York Times piece outlines some of the restrictions placed on military training activities on the base due to the ESA listing. A key line from the New York Times piece that pretty much sums up ALL of these kinds of cases where economic powers but heads with endangered species:

Mr. Perry (director of mission support) said Fort Hood nevertheless supported delisting because the installation pays hundreds of thousands of dollars to comply with the act, including funding a biological assessment every five years.

Note there’s absolutely nothing in his statement about the bird itself.  There’s absolutely nothing in his statement about conservation concerns.  No, the one and only focus is the fact that the installation ends up paying “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to comply with listing of the species.

Money. And political power.  The story also notes some of the other big names in Texas politics who have supported the de-listing, including the Bush family. That’s what proponents of keeping the Golden-cheeked Warbler listed are up against.

What does the science say? The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completed a five-year review of the species, with a report released two years ago that state the species still needed to be listed as endangered due to ongoing threats to its habitat, and threat of extinction.  Given that ESA is theoretically driven by scientific assessments such as this, you’d think that would be the end of the argument.  You’d think those petitioning for delisting would have little chance of success.

You’d be wrong. ESA has always been a political football, most often when economic interests butt heads with local land-use or other restrictions, but also sometimes simply for the ideological battle of “conservation” vs. “economics”.  The Golden-cheeked Warbler’s protected status is just one example of many across the United States where similar battles are being fought.  In a world where “science” has somehow become a negative term for many in the U.S. in recent years, it’s just one more case where short-term greed and selfishness are pushing up (and often winning) against conservationists and environmentalists.

“Hunting” interests bringing handguns to a prairie near you!

The South Dakota legislature has been working on a bill that would legalize the use of handguns for hunting gamebirds.  From a practical standpoint, it’s a head-scratcher.  The bill would authorize the use of handguns loaded with .410 shot shells.  As the article link above points out, such a light shell, shot from a handgun, might be effective up to a ridiculously close range of 10 feet, but beyond that, there’s little chance of doing anything other than inuring a bird.

To be blunt…I don’t think this bill has anything to do with hunting. If you’re going hunting for grouse or pheasant, you’re not going to grab a handgun.  This bill is about “legitimizing” handguns, pure and simple.  It’s a bill designed to show that handguns have some supposed legitimate use, rather than turning on other human beings.

A debate has started on the South Dakota bird listserver about the bill, a debate that has brought hunters out of the woodwork.  Of course the argument from the hunting crowd has absolutely nothing to do with the bill itself.  Hunters are ignoring the actual issue, and instead rushing to come to the defense of hunting overall.  The main argument being made is that hunting overall is a net benefit to birds, because of all the habitat that’s being protected by groups like Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, etc.

As for hunting itself, I have no doubt there’s more habitat due to the power and money of hunting interests.  Overall in the world we live in, that’s good, but again, to be blunt, there’s one very obvious difference between hunting and birding.  I have no doubt many hunters enjoy the habitat itself, but the one overarching reason that habitat is set aside is to ensure there are enough birds and other animals for people to harvest.   Someone on the South Dakota bird listserver said no “informed” birder would equate fewer hunters as a benefit for birds.  I would beg to differ, and I’m POSITIVE the birds staring down the barrel of a shotgun would beg to differ.  The habitat protection is great, but as with anything related to human beings, that habitat protection comes with a price.

Despite the benefits of preserving that habitat, it’s also impossible to ignore the motivation behind that habitat protection, what the real goal is for setting aside that land.  In my utopian world, we’d protect land just for the sake of conservation, not to ensure there’s an adequate pool of creatures to kill.   In short…birders love the resource, love the wild bird itself. For birders, it’s about the birds, and in my perfect world it would be nice to set aside land just to let nature take its course. For hunters, it’s about the ensuring there’s something to harvest.  For hunters, it’s about the hunter him/herself, it’s about using the resource for their own benefit and satisfaction, more than the resource (THE BIRD) itself.

When I drive on the grasslands West River, and I see a group of hunters lined up on a fence, popping off prairie dogs for no other reason than to have something to kill, it’s damned hard to see the “good” side of hunting. To be blunt (why pussyfoot around at this stage and hide how I really feel), in a situation like that, I see a sick desire to kill for the sake of killing.  When you see hunters clamoring to have the chance to kill a mountain lion, or a coyote, or any other animal that’s not being harvested for food or other actual purpose other than to satiate some kind of blood lust….it’s damned hard to see the “good” side of hunting.  When I’m driving around Presho in the late fall looking for raptors, and I see hordes of hunters slowly driving around, jumping out and blasting away when they see a pheasant or grouse, it’s hard to equate their activity with “enjoying the outdoors”, and much easier to see that it’s all about the desire to harvest as many birds as possible. When I’m in the same area and I see a shot raptor lying in a ditch…it’s hard to see the “good” side of hunting, and it’s awfully damned hard to see the birds themselves being put first.

Give me the habitat protection, by all means.  But hunters…don’t pretend it’s all about the birds. It’s all about YOU.

Playing “Jenga” with nature

Ecosystems are like the game of Jenga...take one piece away you don't know what will happen.

Ecosystems are like the game of Jenga…take one piece away you don’t know what will happen.

You never know what will happen when you remove one piece of the puzzle.  Can it survive for a little while longer, albeit in a weakened state?  Or will it all come crashing down when that one piece gets removed?

Yes, I could be talking about the game of “Jenga”, something many of us have played.  But in this case I’m talking about nature.  In the journal Science Advances, research was just published that discusses a link between hawk populations in the southwestern U.S. and breeding success of Black-chinned Hummingbirds.  One wouldn’t immediately think there was much of a link between the two species.  Hummingbirds are far too small and quick for most hawk species to deal with.  They likely couldn’t capture them, and even if they did, they wouldn’t be more than a mouthful.  So how are the species linked?

As the paper discusses, there are actually three bird species who interact to affect nesting success of the hummingbird.  In addition to the Black-chinned Hummingbird, the study looked at Cooper’s Hawks and Mexican Jays.  What they found was that nesting success was much higher for the hummingbirds when they nested very close to Cooper’s Hawk nests.  The Cooper’s Hawks don’t feed on the hummingbirds, but they ARE a threat to Mexican Jays, and Mexican Jays will readily eat hummingbird eggs and young if they get a chance.  In one case, after Cooper’s Hawks left one nesting location, the researchers immediately saw Mexican Jays move in and decimate all hummingbird nests in the area.

Jenga…ala Mother Nature.  That’s what so scary when human beings start to interfere in natural systems.  One of the most publicized impacts of the removal of one species from a system is the Yellowstone ecosystem, before and after the reintroduction of wolves.  It was expected that the reintroduction would impact ungulate populations in the area, but it soon became apparent just how far-reaching an impact wolves have on the ecosystem.  Without wolves, elk and deer browsed freely in lowlands, resulting in nearly all young aspen trees to be browsed to the ground.  Aspen habitat all but disappeared in the park, but with the reintroduction of wolves, that habitat is now being reborn.  With increased aspen came more beavers.  With more aspen habitat and beaver ponds came an influx of more songbirds and other species that use those habitat.  With more wolves, there were fewer coyotes, which meant more small mammals and an increase in numbers of red fox, eagles, and ravens.

All due to the removal of one species.

Be it hawks in the Southwest or wolves in Yellowstone, the removal of one key species can have cascading impacts on the entire ecosystem.  The same certainly can be true in the “reverse” case, where a new, exotic species is introduced into the system.  As a scientist, it’s fascinating to see the incredible impacts humans have on ecosystems, both through how they manage the landscape, and in how they manage the wildlife within that landscape. As just a human being…it also can be pretty depressing to see how we negatively impact so many ecosystems.

Birds vs. People…guess who wins?

Pirate Island

“Pirate Island”, created from dredged sand in order to provide breeding habitat for coastal birds. A nice idea! Then the selfish “Me First” crowd found the island and turned it into “Party Island” for all intents and purposes. It’s hard to image many birds breeding on an island with this much human activity.

There’s a bird “news” blog I like to read, LittleBirdieHome.  Three times a week, there are new stories posted that relate to birds, from the mundane stories such as “Johnny saw a Three-toed Kingbird down at Newton’s Corner!” to bird research published in scientific journals.  Many times they are feel-good stories.  However, as with any “news”, it ain’t always good.

This week there’s a story from near our old stomping grounds. After college, we lived in Maryland for a couple of years.  Every once in a while we’d head east on a weekend to enjoy Ocean City or another beach on the coast.  It was a nice change of pace for a Midwestern couple who hadn’t even seen the ocean many times.  However, it was also a complete MADHOUSE.  Just traveling back and forth to the coast on a weekend was often bumper to bumper, and you certainly couldn’t ever find solitude once you arrived

The story posted by LittleBirdieHome highlights the attitude that certainly seemed to permeate coastal areas when we were there.  People first!  WITHOUT exception!! That’s the general rule.  Wildlife?  That’s about 48th on the list of most important concerns for coastal visitors.  The story concerns newly created islands and a conflict between birds, and people.  Several small islands were created off the coast to benefit bird species that need quiet, isolated locations for breeding.  However, boaters in the area have made one of the islands into a favorite weekend getaway location, flocking to the sandy beach on the island and the relative solitude compared to the coast itself.  Breeding bird species, for which the island was built?  There’s simply not going to be many breeding birds when people are using the island so heavily.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, as it’s really no different here in South Dakota.  Public lands and parks are DEFINITELY “people first”, with wildlife concerns far down the list of most important land management concerns  It’s SO sad here to visit a favored State Park, only to find that areas of wonderful habitat have been cleared to make room for campers, archers, off-road vehicles, etc.  It seems the people-first method of management is universal in the United States, where the ONLY concern for the public is how they can use (and abuse) public lands.  While the article linked above notes that officials are considering permanently closing the island to human visitation, I would bet the farm that the boating/party/beachbum/LOSER interests win out.

I’d like to think that they’d default to the use the island was built for, but when it comes down to people vs. birds, people always win.  It’s as simple as that.

Tree Nazis strike again in South Dakota

Tree cutting - South Dakota roadsides

Another one of my (former) favorite birding spots, hit by the South Dakota Tree Nazis. If they have their way, no habitat of any kind will be left in the state, and we’ll have a nice homogeneous landscape of corn and soybeans.

Sigh…this is getting old.  I went out this morning to do a bit of birding, and thought I’d try “Ditch Road” north of Sioux Falls.  It’s a spot I like to go to in the mornings.  Ditch road has a ditch that often holds water, with thick trees and shrubs on either side.  The stretch I like to bird is on the west side of the road, so there’s some nice light as I drive it in the morning.

As soon as I turned the corner on to Ditch Road, my heart fell.  Yet another of my favorite birding habitats in the area has fallen prey to the South Dakota Tree Nazis.  If you haven’t heard of the group, they’re an evil underground effort to ensure that all of South Dakota is homogeneous corn and soybeans, and that every little bit of remaining bird habitat is removed.  “Spook Road”, another favorite birding spot just east of my home town of Brandon, has also fallen prey to the Tree Nazis.

In both cases, thick shrubs and trees lining the road have been completely removed.  From the rumors I’ve heard, it’s local and county government efforts to satisfy new insurance requirements.  I’m not sure if it’s true, but I had heard that due to an accident involving someone becoming injured or killed in a vehicle strike on roadside woody vegetation, insurance companies pressured local governments to remove woody vegetation that’s anywhere close to a roadway.

Trees aren’t exactly widespread on the South Dakota plains.  Urban areas certainly have plenty of trees, but otherwise they are typically restricted to riparian areas and fencelines.  In the case of the aforementioned Spook Road, there’s about a 3 mile stretch where a small creek intermittently crosses the road, and it’s the thick riparian/roadside trees and shrubs that were removed.  In the case of Ditch Road, it truly is a very thin strip of tree and shrub habitat, perhaps 30 yards wide in total, but it’s always been a very productive birding location for me, particularly in spring when migrant passerines move through.

And now, like many of my other favorite birding locations, the Tree Nazis have destroyed it.  As the photo above shows, ALL vegetation on the side of the ditch closest to the road has been removed.  I guess I should be thankful the Tree Nazis were feeling gracious, and left the vegetation on the far side of the ditch. It’s a far too common site though in the area, with trees along fencelines, shelter belts, and other roadside trees being removed at an incredible rate.

The South Dakota Tree Nazis have many splinter groups operating in the state as well, including the South Dakota Wetland Destroyers who have been incredibly active in the last couple of years, drain-tiling and destroying every tiny remaining spot of wetland in the area.  For an area that historically was chock-full of little wetlands, I now have to drive a ways to find a functional wetland with any kind of decent birding.

I’ve got a LOT of photos on my main website that were taken on Ditch Road. After what I saw today, all of those photos may now just be a remembrance of a time when Ditch Road had decent birding, before the Tree Nazis did their work…

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