Using GPS to help save the California condor from extinction

This week on TechKnow, Oldmixon travels to Bitter Creek Wildlife Refuge in Kern County, California to study how science and technology helped increase the population of the California condor. “The California condor was practically extinct when we started to use technology to bring them back and foster an increase in their population,” explains TechKnow contributor Rachelle Oldmixon.

The California condor is the largest flying bird in North America, able to soar up to 55 miles per hour and travel 150 miles in a single day. They reside mainly in the dry desert regions of central and southern California, Utah, Arizona, and Baja California. However, in the late 1980s, the birds were all but extinct due to low reproduction rates, poaching and poisoning from DDT and lead bullet fragments. “Because humanity took them to the brink of extinction, we’re now working to bring the California condor back to its original population levels,” Oldmixon says. Continue reading

Fate of eagles unknown after WA group loses permit

Birds from the Sardis Raptor Center, including two bald eagles, were on display for the first day of the Northwest Washington Fair in Lynden in August 2012. PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Read more here:

Birds from the Sardis Raptor Center, including two bald eagles, were on display for the first day of the Northwest Washington Fair in Lynden in August 2012.

FERNDALE, WASH. — The fate of 18 bald eagles is uncertain since the Washington rescue group that has been caring for them has lost its permit.

KOMO-TV reports ( officials at the Sardis Wildlife Center fears the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will seize and euthanize the eagles.

But the woman responsible for handing out migratory bird permits for the Fish and Wildlife service says the government will eventually take the birds from the rescue group, but does not intend to kill the animals.

The 18 eagles have been brought to the Sardis Wildlife Center over the past 20 years for a variety of reasons. They are released back into the wild if they can be.

Sharon Wolters runs the nonprofit and said she’s had paperwork problems with her IRS nonprofit status and with Fish and Wildlife. That’s what has caused the uncertainty about the eagles’ future.

In addition to the bald eagles, the center also hosts other birds, including hawks, owls, vultures and even a seagull.



Feds Put End to Rescue of Peregrine Falcon Chicks

After decades of scrambling on the underside of California bridges to pluck endangered peregrine falcon chicks from ill-placed nests, inseminating female birds and releasing captive-raised fledglings, wildlife biologists have been so successful in bringing back the powerful raptors that they now threaten Southern California’s endangered shorebird breeding sites.


As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it will no longer permit peregrine chick rescues from Bay Area bridges, a move that they concede will likely lead to fluffy chicks tumbling into the water below and drowning next spring.

“It’s a paradox,” said Marie Strassburger, chief of the federal agency’s division of migratory birds and habitat in Sacramento. “Yes, chicks are cute. I won’t deny that for a second.”

But she said the loss of chicks that fledge from the nest too early is a natural part of life.

Peregrines nest high on cliffs, trees, buildings and bridges because they hunt by diving, at speeds topping 200 mph, at wild birds they like to eat. When fledging, young peregrines fly well and land poorly. On cliffs, there are plenty of easy spots for a crash landing. On buildings, they scramble back onto window sills or ledges when their first flights go awry, or they hit the sidewalk and can be carried back to their nests. But on bridges, with smooth steel or concrete supports, chicks find no perch and often just hit the water.

“We see the loss of a chick by natural causes as an educational moment as this happens in nature all the time,” said Strassburger. “The peregrine falcons on the bridges in the Bay Area just happen to be in a very visible spot so the public is more aware of it.”

The recovery of peregrines, and now their potential threat to other species, underscores the fragile balance of nature that biologists have struggled with in recent years: Saving bighorn sheep in Yosemite National Park meant hunting protected mountain lions; reintroducing gray wolves in the Rockies brought a backlash when ranchers complained they were killing livestock; and bringing golden eagle populations back on California’s Channel Islands nearly devastated the island fox, one of the world’s smallest canines.

The decision to stop saving peregrine chicks is strictly local, says U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service migratory bird specialist Alicia King at their Arlington, Virginia headquarters. She said she didn’t know of any other place where this was happening, and there’s no national position. She noted that in many communities the peregrines are beloved and their chicks are treasured.

“But birds sometimes nest in places that are not the best places for them to nest, and while it’s hard to watch, sometimes nature has to take its course,” she said.

No one is suggesting that the drowning deaths of a dozen or so chicks taken from Bay Area bridges is going to tip the entire species back into a risky situation. Nor is anyone suggesting that allowing a few birds to be saved would actually damage the dwindling population of at-risk shorebirds hundreds of miles south.

But there are two very different sentiments about how to proceed.

For wildlife biologist Glenn Stewart, who directs the University of California, Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group, allowing baby birds to topple into the choppy, frigid San Francisco Bay and drown is an indefensible approach.

“Yes, peregrines are recovered, but should we let this sometimes vigorously protected and sometimes left-to-drown resource be squandered?” said Stewart, who wrote “Eye to Eye with Eagles Hawks and Falcons” published earlier this year.

And conversely, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it makes no sense to permit chick rescues in one part of California when they are busy having to trap and move them away from threatened species habitat elsewhere in the state.

Thus Stewart was informed this year, as he applied for his annual springtime permit to remove chicks, that this would be his last.

Peregrine falcons were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1973; at the time, there were just 11 of the birds known to be living in California and about 100 nationwide. Over the next three decades, independent biologists working with federal and state researchers successfully rescued the species, largely by releasing more than 4,000 captive-raised peregrines in 28 states, but also through meticulous conservation, ranging from chick rescues to incubating and hatching eggs.

Today there are around 2,000 in California, and as many as 10,000 more across the U.S., where they’ve become wildly popular thanks to live, streaming webcams above their nests and annual media accounts of their rescues from New York to Portland, Ore. KathyQ, a peregrine nesting in downtown Indianapolis, has her own Facebook page.

Falcon fans from around the world log in regularly to watch peregrines perched in their nests below bridges or on ledges of tall buildings, commenting excitedly when the 1 ounce chicks hatch, and weeks later, gathering in crowds below as they attempt their first flights. In many places, the birds even have names: Diamond Lil and her mate Dapper Dan have nested on the 33rd floor of the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. building in downtown San Francisco since 2008.

This spring was poignant for Stewart, who began working with peregrines in the 1970s, at a time most thought they would go extinct. For what may well be his last time, in April he plucked four soccer ball-sized chicks from a nest below the Richardson Bay Bridge that spans an inlet in the north end of the San Francisco Bay.

“They look soft and fuzzy, but they have a very dense coat of down, their feet are heavy and they bite,” he said.

The chicks were taken to the University of California, Davis, veterinary school where they were cared for before being moved to a building top where they were released. Costs are covered by the research groups.

Bill Heinrich who directs Interpretive Center at the Boise, Idaho-based Peregrine Fund said after so much effort, it makes no sense to halt rescues, especially since taxpayers no longer cover any of the costs. He hadn’t heard of similar decisions anywhere else, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has issued no national directives.

“These are the most beautiful birds of prey in the world and also the fastest,” he said. “We spent millions of dollars and decades bringing them back from the brink of extinction. I can understand why they don’t want to pay for their rescues, but it makes no sense not to allow it.”

But in recent years, Fish and Wildlife official Strassburger said, biologists have had to move peregrines from several Southern California breeding areas for endangered gulls called California least terns and threatened Western snowy plovers, sensitive little shorebirds that nest on beaches.

“It’s difficult to think that sometimes we end up in that place, where you recover an endangered predator to the point they become a threat,” said National Wildlife Federation senior scientist Douglas Inkley in Reston, Virginia. “Predators must be part of the picture. The long term answer is that we need to recover those prey species so neither population is at risk.”

Biologist Stewart understands the long-term goals, but says the decision to ban him from saving a handful of chicks from Bay Area bridges next year is “dumbfounding.”
© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Casualty of climate change

The rise in sea level has changed where migratory birds can go.

Biologist Greg Breese, of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, tags types of sandpipers that they trapped on the beach at Port Mahon, Delaware. - Mary F. Calvert / MCT Photo

Biologist Greg Breese, of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, tags types of sandpipers that they trapped on the beach at Port Mahon, Delaware. – Mary F. Calvert / MCT Photo

IN years past, tens of thousands of red knots crowded the sandy beaches of Mispillion Harbour in Delaware Bay, gorging on fresh horseshoe crab eggs spawned in such abundance, they turned the shoreline a gelatinous green.

Smaller than a gull but larger than a robin, the shorebirds have one of the longest-distance migrations known in the animal kingdom. Each year, the ruddy-breasted birds fly to the Canadian Arctic from their winter home in Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America. And each year, there are fewer and fewer.

Red knots, elite athletes of the bird world, stop briefly in Delaware Bay in the spring, when the horseshoe crabs lay their eggs. They feast until they’ve doubled their weight, then they resume their flight to the Arctic to breed young of their own.

“It’s one of the world’s most dramatic migrants,” said Nigel Clark, who heads projects for the British Trust for Ornithology. Clark, who helped set up a programme in the US state of Delaware 15 years ago to tag and monitor red knots, returns on vacation from Britain each year to volunteer with the scientific teams that are counting the birds and studying why they’re in decline.

After tagging and recording data, Kevin Kalasz, 39, of Delaware Fish and Wildlife, releases a Dunlin sandpiper. - Mary F. Calvert/MCT Photo

After tagging and recording data, Kevin Kalasz, 39, of Delaware Fish and Wildlife, releases a Dunlin sandpiper. – Mary F. Calvert/MCT Photo

Each May, as the red knots fuel up on horseshoe crab eggs, scientists and volunteer bird-watchers from around the world also flock to Delaware Bay, to count and tag red knots and other shorebirds. Their work, which requires patience and painstaking attention to detail, will be crucial as the US Fish and Wildlife Service decides later this year whether to list the red knot as a threatened or endangered species.

There are many threats that could warrant listing red knots, but climate change is one of the most challenging. As the Earth warms, the climate is changing at an accelerated pace in the polar regions. That’s where red knots spend much of their time, yet it’s also the area where they’ve been studied the least.

“Climate change affects just about all of those stopover places, those really important places, in one way or another,” said Phillip Hoose, the author of Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95. Hoose’s book follows one red knot in particular: a male tagged with a leg band in 1995 and known as “Moonbird”. The nickname comes from the two decades B95 has spent flying, enough air time to make it to the moon and part of the way back.

“The time’s going to come where there just won’t be beaches for horseshoe crabs to lay their eggs in the sand,” Hoose said. “In the Arctic, climate change could very well take away the tundra habitat that they lay their little speckled eggs in.”

Tracking birds

Red knots are beloved by bird-watchers and scientists alike, who marvel at their good looks, their stamina and the interconnected nature of their existence across a sweeping range. There’s even a statue honouring Moonbird in front of the DuPont Nature Centre at Mispillion Harbour – one of the best places for people to spot red knots through a scope. Researchers spotted Moonbird there again May 16.

Red knots, elite athletes of the bird world, stop briefly in Delaware Bay in the spring to feast on horseshoe crab eggs. When they have doubled their weight, they will resume their flight to the Arctic to breed. - Andre Chung/MCT Photo

Red knots, elite athletes of the bird world, stop briefly in Delaware Bay in the spring to feast on horseshoe crab eggs. When they have doubled their weight, they will resume their flight to the Arctic to breed. – Andre Chung/MCT Photo

It’s difficult to know how many red knots once made up the population that stops in Delaware Bay – perhaps more than 150,000, said Gregory Breese, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service. But their numbers have dwindled since the mid-1990s, and there may be as few as 20,000 now.

The arrival of the red knot can be unpredictable. So when they haven’t shown up yet, scientists and volunteers capture and tag other, smaller shorebirds whose habits and range are similar and therefore could provide clues to changes in the red knot’s population. On a recent May day, they looked for ruddy turnstones that previously had been fitted with bands known as “flags”. That process, known as re-sighting, allows researchers to track the larger shorebirds over time without recapturing them.

They also put new tags on smaller birds, including semi-palmated sandpipers. Researchers set up small wire traps near the birds and waited for them to enter. The traps themselves are harmless, little more than a chicken-wire maze the sandpipers can’t exit. The volunteers and researchers weighed and measured the birds they trapped, and noted where the birds were tagged and when, along with other facts. Holding a wild bird is like capturing a fragile handful of downy wind for just a moment. Delicate and twitchy, its heart beats like the sweeping second hand on an old stopwatch. When freed, it doesn’t look back.

Research has concentrated in Delaware Bay because it’s not just a crucial refuelling stop, but also one of the most accessible red knot habitats to volunteers and scientists. While in the Mid-Atlantic, red knots double their weight from about 90g to 240g in a matter of weeks. The Fish and Wildlife Service’s work to decide the birds’ status will take into account some of the projected climate changes in the Arctic and in the South American stretch of the red knot’s territory.

Scientists research the birds worldwide, but it’s most difficult for them to study red knots in Canada. There, the birds spread out over vast swaths of tundra when they’re nesting, rather than congregating on beaches as they do in Delaware Bay in the spring.

One of the most intriguing areas of research comes from scientists who have studied lemming cycles in the Arctic. Research released in 2008 suggested that lemmings, which breed in predictable multi-year cycles, have fallen out of that pattern.

Jim Fraser, a professor of wildlife at Virginia Tech, saw that study and thought there might be a link to the red knot. He published a paper looking at the idea that red knots are less likely to be eaten by predators such as foxes when there are lots of lemmings to eat instead, and that a dearth of lemmings might be contributing to the decline of the red knot.

In spring, horseshoe crabs wash ashore on Delaware Bay to lay eggs. This is also the time when red knots stop there to fuel up on the eggs. - Mary F. Calvert/MCT Photo

In spring, horseshoe crabs wash ashore on Delaware Bay to lay eggs. This is also the time when red knots stop there to fuel up on the eggs. – Mary F. Calvert/MCT Photo

The climate has become more humid in some Arctic zones, Fraser said, changing the characteristics of what’s known as the subnivean layer, the area between the ground and the snowpack.

That layer becomes unstable and collapses, and the habitat for the lemmings to reproduce is no longer reliable. That creates less-than-ideal conditions for big bursts of lemming populations.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will decide by the end of September whether to list red knots as endangered or threatened, agency spokesman Chris Tollefson said.

Until now, their listing has been precluded by other, higher-priority listing actions.

If the agency proceeds with the listing, it also will consider whether some parts of the red knot habitat are essential for red knot conservation.

It could designate those places as critical habitat – but only in the United States, not in the Arctic or South America.

Species interaction

Much of the research into the red knot’s decline has focused on the interplay between horseshoe crabs and the knots in Delaware Bay. The crabs were harvested for fertiliser into the early 1900s, but their modern use is as bait for eel and conch fishing; their blood also is used in biomedical testing.

Catch bans and limits are in place in some areas, but the crabs’ numbers remain one of the key areas of concern for the red knot.

On one stretch of beach at high tide in mid-May, horseshoe crabs swarmed the waterline, eager to spawn. Females dug into the sand to bury the fertilised eggs, then they exited with the tide. Ideally, so many crabs will do the same that they churn up one another’s eggs, bringing some to the surface, which then are accessible to shorebirds.

“It’s not just having crabs, it’s having a superabundance of crabs available, so you get lots of eggs to the surface,” Breese said.

Some homeowners and visitors to the bay will walk along the beach flipping over horseshoe crabs that got stranded by the tide on their backs, where they’re vulnerable to gulls. After they’ve been flipped, the crabs scuttle slowly away, back toward the sea. Crabs, too, are tagged.

Anyone who finds a tag may call in its location to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Spotters used to receive pewter horseshoe-crab lapel pins as a reward, but budget cuts ended that programme.

Horseshoe crab habitat for spawning is also of concern. Habitat used by red knots for foraging in Delaware Bay is being destroyed or modified due to beach erosion.

Fraser hopes to study red knots in the Arctic to get a better sense of what’s happening to eggs and young birds.

Other researchers would like to see more work done to study what the young birds do after their parents leave the Arctic, and where they go next, said Jean Woods, the curator of birds at the Delaware Museum of Natural History and one of the scientists who study the red knot migration each spring.

No one wants to see an end to such an epic migration, least of all the scientists who study the knots, but the climate changes in the poles are far beyond the scope of the red knot listing that might be out in a few months.

The environmentalist Aldo Leopold once wrote that there are people who can live without wild things, and people who can’t, Fraser said.

“I think there’s a lot of people who can’t. I’m one of them,” he said.

“Who wants to live in a world without shorebirds? I don’t.” – McClatchy Washington Bureau/McClatchy Tribune Information Services.