Release of 44 rare birds ‘historic’

THEY'RE OFF: Taronga Zoo's Michael Shiels points out one of the just-released hihi.

THEY’RE OFF: Taronga Zoo’s Michael Shiels points out one of the just-released hihi.

One of New Zealand’s rarest birds has taken to its new home at Bushy Park with a song.

Forty-four of the hihi or stitchbird – 22 male and 22 female – were released into the park yesterday morning to make it one of only three mainland hihi sanctuaries nationwide.

The birds were captured on Tiritiri Matangi island near Auckland last Saturday by a team of 13, including Department of Conservation and Massey University researchers and staff from Sydney’s Taronga Zoo.

It’s believed there are less than 3500 left in New Zealand.

Around 100 people turned out in the brisk morning air to see the birds released from their transport boxes, including Bushy Park Trust chairwoman Liz Tennet. She said once the birds flew into the bush several of them began to sing.

“It was awesome, and it was such a historic moment as there’s only two other places where the hihi have successfully been transposed onto the mainland.

“I think them singing to us like that is a good sign.”

The hihi project, which has been led by former trust chairman Allan Anderson, had been underway for about five years.

“Today has been the fruition of the process. We’ve installed food stations and nesting boxes for them which has been done by volunteers, and we’ve had to ensure they’re able to enter a disease-free environment.

“We had a delay about a year because one of the birds was diagnosed with salmonella, but after some testing we established that wasn’t a problem. It still set us back for a while.”

Ms Tennet said many Wanganui businesses and individuals had contributed, as had a crown Prince from Abu Dhabi, but more donations would be needed.

“We’ve attached little radio transmitters to some of them, that cost about $10,000, and we’ll be using aeroplanes or helicopters to monitor where they go. All the ongoing costs will need to be met somehow and we’re always happy to hear from people who want to help with money or time, even if it’s just two hours a month,” she said.

Guardians of the Hihi is a new initiative where a single hihi is sponsored for $55 or a pair for $100 and the donor receives a personalised certificate.If you want to volunteer or donate call Liz Tennet 027 295 0928.

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Bird lovers offered chance to view mating dance of the black grouse in upper Teesdale

BIRD lovers are being invited to view one of the must-see spring rituals of the black grouse.


The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and Natural England are organising treks to a black grouse lek (mating ground) in upper Teesdale to see the males perform their unique display as they bid to attract a partner.

Fran Atterton, black grouse research assistant with the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, said: “The elaborate, noisy, energetic, sometimes comical, display of the males as they gather on their traditional lekking grounds is quite a remarkable sight, and one that is well worth the effort to experience.”

Once common across Britain, the North Pennines are among the few places where black grouse are now found.

Thanks to conservation efforts, the male population in 2012 was estimated at 936, but the effects of last year’s poor summer, which resulted in the worst breeding season on record in northern England, will only become clear when a new survey begins in the coming weeks.

Two walks to the lek are planned on April 13 and 20. With a 5am start, they include a dawn viewing, a short tour of habitats looking for other species of interest and breakfast at the Langdon Beck Hotel.

Places cost £12 and booking is essential. Contact Natural England on 01833-622374.

A summer stroll around some of the black grouse habitats of upper Teesdale has also been organised for June 5, leaving from Widdybank Farm gate, Langdon Beck, at 7pm. This event is free but booking is essential.

Contact Fran Atterton at the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust on 01833-651936 or email

Migratory birds flock to Beijing

High numbers of migratory birds arriving at Beijing’s largest wetland nature reserve indicate there will be an increase in bird numbers over 2012, a conservation expert said Monday.

“According to conservative estimates, we’ll have 20,500 migratory birds this spring, an increase of 5,000 from last year,” said Li Li, head of the Black Leopard Wildlife Conservation Station, an NGO which helps to protect the birds at the Wild Duck Lake National Wetland Park in Yanqing county.

“The increasing number of birds is the result of the good conservation work we’ve done  in the park. We’ve enclosed the whole 8,600-hectare area, installed 48 security cameras, and conducted 24-hour patrols. In winter we give them food like corn, sorghum and other grain,” Li said.

More than 400 whooper swans have already arrived at the wetland, well up on the 36 swans last year. The peak time for migratory birds to arrive is mid-March and visitors can buy tickets to enter the area, said Li.

Bird watchers can expect to see mallards, ruddy shelducks, grey cranes, common goldeneyes and wild geese. They will stay for two months before continuing to migrate northward.

Li said that the migratory routes are fixed and will not be affected by bad weather like smog and sandstorms.

“It’s like when you go home at Spring Festival. Birds follow an habitual path, and the wetland is a key place for them to stop. Smog can affect their vision and sandstorms will be a drag when they fly, so such bad weather will prolong their stay in Beijing,” Li said.

US bird watchers head to Iron Range in search of rare sightings

Bird-watchers from all over the country flock to a frozen Iron Range bog in hopes of spotting rarely seen species flying south out of Canada.

Rarely seen, a tiny boreal owl perched on the limb of a tree. At 4 ½ ounces, it is one of the smallest owls.

Rarely seen, a tiny boreal owl perched on the limb of a tree. At 4 ½ ounces, it is one of the smallest owls.

MEADOWLANDS, MINN. – To the casual observer, the Sax-Zim Bog is not particularly scenic in winter.

It’s a vast stretch of flat, snow-covered, frozen ground punctuated by trees, sometimes in clumps, sometimes standing alone. Every so often, there are the remnants of a rotting, collapsed barn, a vestige of the misplaced optimism of a farmer who had hoped to tame the soggy ground only to discover that the bog usually wins such jurisdictional disputes.

Of course, the bog doesn’t get many casual observers. It’s tucked into a remote corner of the Iron Range that few Minnesotans visit. Bird-watchers, on the other hand, travel from all over the country to get there.

Every February, the immense bog — more than four times the size of Minneapolis — offers extreme birders the prospect of spotting birds that have migrated from northern Canada, species seen nowhere else in the lower 48 states. To these devotees, seeing birds that others haven’t seen is what it’s all about.

“It’s like a big, lifelong Easter egg hunt,” said Mike Hendrickson, founder of the bog’s annual Winter Birding Festival. “Every state has different eggs, and everyone wants to see them all. Northern Minnesota has its share of very special eggs, and people will go bonkers over that.”

This year’s festival attracted people from such far-flung — and warm — locales as Southern California, Texas and the bay area of Florida. They bundled up in sweaters, coats and layers of sweatpants to withstand the bog’s near-zero temperatures. In their heavy work boots, they tromped across northern Minnesota’s tundra, striking the pose of big-game hunters, shooting with cameras outfitted with 2-foot-long lenses.

Sidney Crawford of Ozona, Fla., who has been birding for 60 of his 70 years, photographed the boreal owl.

Sidney Crawford of Ozona, Fla., who has been birding for 60 of his 70 years, photographed the boreal owl.

Their window of opportunity is limited. It was mid-month and, if normal migration patterns held, the birds would be heading back north within a week or two.

“They sort of eat their way down here, moving farther south as they run out of food,” explained Frank Nicoletti, a researcher at the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory in Duluth. As soon as the weather begins to warm up, the birds start eating their way north again, usually leaving the bog by the first of March.

That was enough to draw 150 birders — the point at which the birding festival caps participation — to Meadowlands, a town of 134 people that sits on the edge of the bog about 45 miles north of Cloquet.

“The festival is a big deal because the bog is a big deal,” Hendrickson said. It doesn’t matter that most Minnesotans haven’t heard of it. The birders have, and so, apparently, have the birds. More than 240 species have been spotted there.

A frosty start

Before dawn, the birders gather in Meadowlands, where they board schoolbuses staffed by professional guides and, no small perk, drivers who know where the heated bathrooms are.

Nonetheless, heat was in short supply early in the day. As the birders climbed aboard the buses, the windows quickly fogged over. No one was about to miss a sighting, so there was only one thing left to do: Open the windows.

Susan Elliott of Mendota Heights, front, and Sidney Crawford of Ozona, Fla., left, joined other birders in trying to get a glimpse of birds at the Sax-Zim Bog in Meadowlands, Minn.DAVID JOLES

Susan Elliott of Mendota Heights, front, and Sidney Crawford of Ozona, Fla., left, joined other birders in trying to get a glimpse of birds at the Sax-Zim Bog in Meadowlands, Minn.

Sid Crawford, who had come from Florida to attend his fourth festival, took the chill in stride. “I don’t think it’s uncomfortable,” he insisted. “I think it’s invigorating.”

As the trip began, Nicoletti instructed everyone on board to keep vigilant watch and yell out if they saw anything promising. “Look for blobs in bushes and trees,” he instructed.

The most exciting sighting of the day wasn’t a blob. It was barely a speck: a boreal owl, which, weighing a mere 4 ½ ounces, is one of the smallest of its kind and among the rarest of sightings.

The busload oohed and ahhhed, clicking their cameras like a tour of Hollywood stargazers who’d seen Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie strolling down the sidewalk arm-in-arm with George Clooney.

“The only way this could be better is if the bird had hopped on my shoulder and said, ‘Take me home with you,’ ” said Ed Newbury, a retired Episcopal priest from Nebraska.

That’s birding

There is no official bird-watching motto, but the phrase “That’s birding,” certainly could qualify.

Birders peered through binoculars near a bird feeding station in Sax-Zim Bog to get a good look at an group of bright red pine grosbeaks during the Sax-Zim Winter Birding Festival last month.| DAVID JOLES •

Birders peered through binoculars near a bird feeding station in Sax-Zim Bog to get a good look at an group of bright red pine grosbeaks during the Sax-Zim Winter Birding Festival last month.

The folks on one bus hiked for 20 minutes through deep snow in search of a woodpecker that might have been dining recently in a grove of trees. It had moved on by the time they got there. Lars Benson, who was leading the hike, turned to the group and said, “Well, that’s birding.” Without a grumble, the group turned around and hiked back to the bus — for another 20 minutes.

Just as the bus was about to return to Meadowlands for the day, word came about a great gray owl sighting. The bus immediately set off on a wild goose (or in this case, wild owl) chase that zigzagged across a corner of the bog for more than an hour while the birders kept their posts at the windows (which, by this time, could be closed).

Several times, a birder would holler “Stop!” only to be followed by moans of disappointment at the discovery that a blob in a bush was, in fact, just a blob.

Nicoletti finally called off the search by announcing, “That’s birding.”

Still, no one went home disappointed. Most of them had seen new species, including pine grosbeaks, hoary redpolls, northern shrikes, gray jays and boreal chickadees.

The sighting didn’t have to involve a rare bird. Watching a bald eagle that sat regally atop a tree just off the road, Illinois birder Michelle Kolb sighed.

“This is birding nirvana,” she said.

Israel’s Hula Valley: A Bird Watcher’s Paradise

About half a billion birds migrate through Israel’s Hula Valley twice each year. It’s a paradise for bird watchers, who come by the thousands to one of the world’s major migration routes.
“This is one of the richest sites in the world for bird-watching,” Omri Boneh, with the Jewish National Fund, told CBN News.

“Israel is a sort of junction between three continents and birds that are essentially trying to avoid high mountains [and] great expanses of water, they funnel through very specific flyways,” Ben-Gurion University Prof. Reuven Yosef said.

Hula Valley

The hula valley

Some of these migrating birds fly 2,000 miles in just three to five days without a meal. They fly from Europe to Asia to Africa. For some, Israel is the halfway point — part of a 3,700-mile stretch from Syria to Mozambique.
Some 400 species of birds stop for refueling, and a fraction even winter here, including 30,000 to 45,000 cranes. Listening to them talk, one can understand why King Hezekiah said he “chattered like a crane.” In fact, it’s not just noise. Experts say crane parents and chicks can actually recognize each other’s voices.

Twenty years ago, there were hardly any cranes here because the natural swamps were drained for farmland. The ground didn’t work well for agriculture, so experts restored part of the lake. “And the answer was essentially to give it back to nature and so the project has gone sort of in a circle and we’re back to trying to renovate, trying to sort of reproduce what existed here in the past,” Prof. Yosef said. That and a special feeding project brought the cranes back, along with the visitors.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for us to educate people about birds, about nature,” Boneh explained. “I think that you don’t need to be a bird lover when you are coming here, but you are definitely a bird lover when you are going out of this site.” Visitors to the Agamon Hahula Reserve can ride the safari wagon into the midst of the cranes. Guides say there’s no place else in the world to see so many cranes in such a small area.

Bird watchers come from all over the world to see the phenomenon.

“I don’t even care if you like birds, you have to experience this and come and see thousands and thousands and thousands of cranes,” Joan Goodman, from Washington, D.C., said.

“I’m an amateur birder,” Phil Waldman from Southern California, said. “If you’re a birder, I don’t think there’s a better place you could find to come to see the variety of species, as well as the atmosphere and the beauty of the place; [it] is unrivaled in any place in the world.”

For now, these cranes are getting ready for the long flight back to Russia or Finland for the summer. But they’ll be back next year, along with the bird lovers.

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