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Birding Australia! Southern Cassowary Encounter

Well, I said I’d not blog for a few weeks…the reason? We had a 3-week family vacation in Australia! It wasn’t a dedicated birding trip (my wife and son would rebel if it were!), but I certainly did fit in some birding while there. There’s always something magical about birding somewhere new, whether it’s just in another state or halfway around the world. Birds that may be common are strange and exotic to a new visitor, and your life list increases with almost every bird you see.

I had done some research before leaving, and while any Australian bird was a welcome sighting, there were two things I really wanted to see. First was the incredible variety of birds in the parrot family, something we just don’t have a correlate for in the US. Secondly? I REALLY wanted to see a Southern Cassowary. More than any other bird, a Cassowary is the walking manifestation of “strange and exotic” for a US birder, a living relic that looks as if it’s straight out of the days of the dinosaur. Southern Cassowary are hard to miss if you come across one, given they are the second heaviest bird on earth (up to 190 pounds) and can be over 6-feet tall! However, with loss of their rainforest habitat in Australia, Indonesia, and New Guinea, the total wild population is only 10,000 to 20,000, with only 1,500 to 2,000 in Australia (where it is considered endangered). Still I was hoping against hope that we would be able to catch of glimpse of the massive birds.

Over the three weeks, we visited three general locations: 1) Sydney and the surrounding area, including Blue Mountains National Park, 2) Bellingen area, including Coffs Harbour and Dorrigo National Park, and 3) Port Douglas/Cairns, in the tropical northeastern corner of Australia. The visit to the tropics was the last part of our trip, and it was there where we’d potentially have a chance to see a Southern Cassowary. For our first day in the Port Douglas area, we drove northward into the famed Daintree National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage sight. A description of Daintree from Wikipedia:

Daintree National Park is valued because of its exceptional biodiversity. It contains significant habitat for rare species and prolific birdlife. The name is derived from the Daintree River, which was named by George Elphinstone Dalrymple, an early explorer of the area, after his friend Richard Daintree. Much of the national park is covered by tropical rainforest.[ The Greater Daintree Rainforest has existed continuously for more than 110 million years, making it possibly the oldest existing rainforest .

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daintree_National_Park

We wanted to make a day of driving as far north into the park as you (reasonably) can, to Cape Tribulation. We left early that morning, arriving at the Daintree River and taking the only mode of transportation possible to get into the northern section of the Park…the Daintree River ferry. Once across the river, the road remains paved up to Cape Tribulation, but it’s a very narrow road winding through the rainforest, with little traffic for most of that stretch. It’s a hell of a drive through some of the densest, most ancient rainforest on the planet. We took our time driving up to Cape Tribulation, stopping at any point of interest or short hike that we could find.

That morning at about 11:00 we pulled into an area that provided a small parking area and a short hike into the rainforest. Unfortunately part of the trail was being worked on, and we were only able to walk half a mile or less before returning to the parking area. Up until that point, I admit I was a little disappointed in the birdlife. In one of the most revered rainforest habitats on the planet, I’d seen little birdlife on our short hikes and stops, and this stop was no different. We got back into the car, and started to leave the parking area to continue the drive to Cape Tribulation. However, as we rounded a corner heading back to the main road, we saw it…Cassowary! There in front of us at the edge of a clearing near the road was the massive bird, a mere 20 yards away! A Cassowary is considered to be just about the most dangerous bird on the planet, with the size and disposition to quickly spoil the day (and life!) of a careless birder. However, I admit upon sighting that bird that caution was the last thing on my mind. I pulled over, grabbed the camera, and got out to try and grab some photos.

We watched the bird for perhaps 20 minutes. For most of that time, it was slowly moving through the rainforest just off the road, obscured by thick vegetation. I followed on foot, staying on the road and trying to maintain a healthy distance, hoping at some point to get a better look. Finally we were rewarded when the Cassowary started to move towards the road…it was going to cross right in front of us! It casually stepped out of the forest in front of us and slowly walked across the road before disappearing into the vegetation on the other side. That was the last we saw of the bird.

I was so excited and into the moment that I didn’t really think much about what was happening…until after the bird disappeared. CASSOWARY! We’d just seen a living dinosaur at incredibly close range! Then came the goosebumps and appreciation for what we’d just witnessed. Even if the trip had ended at that moment I would have come home a very happy birder. Below are some photos of the encounter. It turns out the Cassowary’s of Australia weren’t done with us on this trip (more in a later blog post).

Southern Cassowary - Casuarius casuarius
The best look we had of the Cassowary while it was foraging in the forest. For most of the first 15 minutes of the encounter, the bird was moving through rather thick vegetation, with few unobstructed views. I was thrilled when it briefly moved across this small clearing, offering a relatively clean view. However, just a few moments later it was clear that it was about to cross the road right in front of us.
Southern Cassowary - Casuarius casuarius
The Cassowary first poked its head out of the forest, looking out across the open space and giving us a glance. Was it going to come out, or head back into the vegetation?
Southern Cassowary - Casuarius casuarius
The Cassowary emerged from the forest, paused and pecked at a few things along the side of the road, and then slowly walked across the road, disappearing into the forest on the other side. A perfectly clear, unobstructed view of a Southern Cassowary! Given how much my hands were shaking during the encounter I wasn’t sure if any of the photos would turn out. Was thrilled to see I did manage to capture some sharp photos to help document the encounter.

Bye-bye Birdie…Repubs set to gut Endangered Species Act

Greater Sage Grouse -- Centrocercus urophasianus

A Greater Sage Grouse, one of many species that have been considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act in recent years. In the case of this species, political and economic interests won, and Sage Grouse were removed from consideration for protection. The partnership between conservative political groups and economic interests has been very successful in recent years in fighting species listings on the ESA, and with an environmentally hostile Republican Congress now emboldened with a new Republican President, the ESA as a whole has never been under more of a threat.

Mention “Greater Sage Grouse” to a birder, and you’ll get an enthusiastic discussion of a unique, large bird with spectacular breeding displays.  Mention Sage Grouse to a hunter, and you’ll get an enthusiastic discussion of a wily game bird that’s much sought after, particularly as numbers and hunting opportunities decline.  Mention Sage Grouse to energy developers, real estate developers, and conservative politicians in the West, and “Sage Grouse” is a four-letter word. As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) considered the species for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), it sparked a fierce political battle, with Republican politicians in the West teaming with oil, gas, and real estate interests to fight protection.  Despite populations of Greater Sage Grouse declining by over 50% in the last 40 years, and despite the loss of vast areas of former sagebrush habitat, in 2015 the USFWS decided not to list the species under the ESA. It’s disingenuous to discount the impact political pressures had on that decision, as the Greater Sage Grouse still faces significant threats due to habitat loss.  However, one of the contributing factors in the USFWS decision not to list the species was, ironically, widespread conservation efforts that started happening in the West after the species was being considered for listing.  In effect, the threat of listing, and the very existence of the ESA, sparked protections that may have substantially reduced threats to the species. Without the ESA and the threat of legal protection, those conservation efforts likely would never have occurred.

There are other species where equally contentious political battles are currently being waged.  The Lesser Prairie Chicken was listed as “Threatened” under the ESA in 2014, and for good reason. On the global IUCN “red list” of threatened species, the Lesser Prairie chicken is listed as “vulnerable” to extinction, primarily due to the loss of >85% of its original habitat.  Only 20,000-40,000 birds are left, a number that is 98% lower than before settlement of the Great Plains. Despite the obvious scientific reasons for listing the Lesser Prairie Chicken, in 2015, a court order vacated the USFWS decision to protect the species. An energy development group, the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, had teamed with a number of counties in New Mexico to sue the government to prevent listing.  After the court order, the USFWS released a statement that the court order was contrary to the actual scientific, biologic evidence, and that protections were still required to ensure the species was preserved. However, in a very disappointing move to conservationists, the USFWS decided not to appeal the court ruling.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Sights like this have become incredibly common in many parts of South Dakota as Bald Eagle numbers continue to increase. Bald Eagles were one of the original species included on the Endangered Species Act. With their precipitous decline up through the 1970s, the story of the Bald Eagle was in fact one of the driving forces behind the very establishment of the ESA. Despite countless success stories such as this, the ESA is under a threat unlike any other in its 40+ year history, all due to political and economic interests that value short-term monetary gain over environmental and conservation concerns.

Western states and associated economic interests have wielded considerable political power in efforts to derail listing of species under the ESA, The Lesser Prairie Chicken is but one example.  Political battles against the ESA have ramped up substantially since the Northern Spotted Owl listing in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) resulted in the eventual establishment of the Northwest Forest Plan, resulting in major changes in forest management in the region. Those politically opposed to the ESA use the Spotted Owl case as a rallying cry, citing (supposed) massive job losses in the timber industry as a result of the Northwest Forest Plan. However, after the Northwest Forest Plan was enacted, an economic analysis of the first 10 years of the plan found that 40% of communities in the region experienced some economic decline, 37% experienced economic gains, while the rest were relatively stable.  The economic impacts were thus decidedly mixed, not the economic disaster that was foretold, and it was also very difficult to disentangle the economic impact of the Northwest Forest Plan from other economic and political impacts on forestry in the Pacific Northwest.  At the same time the Northwest Forest Plan was beginning to take effect, there was substantial increases in competition for timber products from other timber-producing regions such as Canada, Russia, New Zealand, even the elsewhere in the U.S. (primarily the southeastern U.S.).  Asian economic declines and a sharp decline in demand for PNW timber in Asian markets also strongly contributed to timber industry declines in the region. However, the perception that it was the ESA and the Northern Spotted Owl that “killed the economy” in parts of the PNW is still widely held among those without a complete economic and political understanding of timber industry declines in the area.

It’s been disappointing to see the lack of political will to uphold the ESA and the scientific research that supports decisions to list or not list a species. Given the strong biologic evidence to support listing of the Lesser Prairie Chicken, and given that the 2015 court order to vacate the ESA listing occurred under the watch of a Democratic Obama administration, the decision not to appeal the ruling was viewed as a betrayal by many conservation groups.  However, it’s a sign of the power of political and lobbying groups that have rallied against the ESA in recent years. Even with a Democratic administration that is far more supportive of conservation concerns, the protective power of the ESA has eroded.  Scientific research and the actual biological basis on which ESA listings SHOULD be based have instead been replaced with the influence of politics and economics.

This weekend, we’re shifting to a new administration that will undoubtedly be much more hostile to conservation and environmental concerns than has been the Obama administration. The stocking of the Cabinet and other key government positions with businessmen who are openly hostile to environmental regulation ensures that stories like that of the Lesser Prairie Chicken will become increasingly common, where science and biologic need are dismissed in favor of short-term economic concerns.  The lack of political will to support provisions of the ESA will remove the regulatory and enforcement “bite” of the law, regardless of what happens with the law itself.

Even more distressing, however, are discussions about directly confronting the ESA itself. Rob Bishop (Republican, of course), head of the House Natural Resources Committee, states that he would “love to invalidate” the ESA.  Think about that.  The head of the Congressional Committee tasked with overseeing and preserving the nation’s natural resources, stating that he’d like to remove the very law that has been instrumental in preserving our national symbol, the Bald Eagle, as well as countless other plant and animal species

We’re a country where a wide swath of the electorate knows more about Kim Kardashian’s latest fashion statement than they do about the Affordable Care Act, what’s happening in Syria, the real state of the economy, or other issues that are truly important.  It’s that ignorance, that apathy, that enables the election of a narcissistic, childish, pig of a man to the most powerful position on the planet.  Here’s hoping that someday soon, we all snap out of that apathy, start paying attention, and hold politicians accountable. Otherwise we’re in serious danger of losing all the great strides we’ve made in conservation and environmental protection in the last several decades.

 

 

 

 

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.

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