Monday, February 25, 2008

Is your kitty a conservation threat?

How often have you seen a cat stalking your bird feeder? If your yard is anything like mine, it's probably a fairly frequent sight. With many songbird species in decline across North America, you may have also wondered if those cats are contributing to the loss of bird life.

Americans love their pets, and obviously nobody wants to believe their beloved cat is a conservation threat.

In truth, compared to the staggering loss of habitat throughout the Americas, cats may seem a minor concern for bird survival. Songbirds undergo lengthy migrations each year, so they need intact habitat for feeding, nesting and resting from Canada to South America. Subdivisions, clearing of forests and intesive agriculture all reduce or eliminate these places for birds.

But cats can still have a significant impact, as David Mehlman, director of The Nature Conservancy's Migratory Bird Program, reports in this month's Ask A Conservationist.

When forests, fields and other habitat exist in smaller chunks, large predators disappear. In their place, more adaptable medium-sized predators like skunks, raccoons and red foxes thrive. Plus, bird nests and roosts are easier to find in small pieces of habitat than in large landscapes. It's easy hunting for America's suburban predators.

This includes cats. Indeed, one of the most common predators in America's suburbs and farmlands are cats, whether feral or just set out to roam by home owners. As such they can kill a lot of birds: as many as several hundred million a year.

It's a significant loss of birds, and one that can be prevented quite easily. Put a bell on your cat, or better yet, keep it indoors or on a leash. Idaho's backyard birds will have one less threat if you do. (And I must note: the two cute cats that illustrate this blog, owned by my colleague Stephanie Hansen, always wear bells when outside and are no threat at all to the local bird life). --Matt Miller

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Fish Dinners

Last night, I enjoyed a dinner of halibut in a white wine/tomato sauce--a belated Valentine's Day dinner. As I think about it, some of my most memorable meals over the years have involved fish or seafood. Smoked salmon, grilled trout, steamed mussels, clam chowder, sushi--all would make the short list of favorite foods. Like millions of people around the world, I love eating these meals that are both nutritious and delicious.

But eating fish and seafood is also increasingly complicated.

Our oceans are in trouble--more than 40% heavily affected by human activities. Unsustainable fisheries contribute to the damage. What was once an abundant food source has become imperiled--turning a once-pleasant trip to the seafood counter into a smorgasbord of ethical dilemmas. (Fortunately, the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program can help you make the best choices on your next shopping trip).

It's not only marine fish. Our freshwater streams and rivers demonstrate that pollutants in the air and water don't follow political boundaries. Last week, The Nature Conservancy sent a letter to the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality asking to determine the source of mercury in Silver Creek. This followed a study that found some brown trout in the creek--known for its crystal-clear waters--had mercury levels as much as four times higher than what is recommended for consumption by infants and pregnant women. DEQ subsequently issued a health advisory for consumption of fish caught in Silver Creek (while the preserve is strictly a catch-and-release fishery, downstream of the preserve anglers may harvest brown trout).

While the source of the mercury is not yet known, it is likely coming from the air from sources outside Silver Creek.

Throughout southern Idaho, other waterways and rivers now have health advisories on fish consumption due to high levels of mercury.

As Mark Johnson of KTVB-NBC in Boise said during his station's newscast of the Silver Creek health advisory, Idahoans take pride in our clean, pure water. We still have those beautiful spring creeks full of rising trout, the rivers where salmon still return to spawn, the breathtaking rivers that provide so much for our lives. But even here, toxins like mercury have become a part of our watersheds.

For millenia, our rivers, streams, lakes and oceans have provided for humanity. In Idaho, incredible salmon runs once fed numerous cultures. In the eastern United States, at the time of the Revolutionary War, the Susquehanna River employed literally thousands of people who caught shad for the market (today, shad are almost extinct in the watershed). More recently, many of us have cherished memories of catching some fish for dinner.

Our waters can still provide. But as a society we have to make clean air, clean water and healthy streams, rivers and oceans a priority. Our waters can still sustain large populations of fish, and in turn provide those healthy, nutritious, memorable meals. But only if we care. Working together, we can find solutions to these daunting challenges, so that a fish dinner and clean water remain not a luxury, but a part of our human heritage. --Matt Miller

Monday, February 11, 2008

Cardinals, Idaho and Winter

This coming weekend is the Great Backyard Bird Count, where people can count birds in their backyards (or other favorite areas) , creating a real-time snapshot of what birds are across the continent. Such "citizen science" can play an important role in bird conservation--providing indicators of species declines or range expansion. You only need 15 minutes. Learn how to participate.

If you're counting in your Idaho backyard, if past years were any indication, you'll likely see juncos, house finches and American goldfinches. You probably won't see the northern cardinal pictured above. The cardinal is currently not found here.

But will backyard birders some day regularly record cardinals? That is actually an open question.
Growing up in Pennsylvania, a welcome winter sight was several male cardinals sitting on a snow-covered pine branch. The bright reds, greens and whites created a beautiful contrast--a fact not lost on the holiday card industry.

But the cardinal is not a bird of winter. In fact, it much prefers mild temperatures, and prolonged winters once served to limit the cardinal's northern range.

Over the holidays, on jaunts around my in-laws' farm in northeast Iowa, I saw dozens of cardinals. Fifty years ago, cardinals were not found in the Midwest farther north than Missouri.

Why is this? Certainly milder winters have played a role, encouraging cardinals to check out areas farther to the north. But winters can still be tough in places like Iowa and Maine--states that now have year-round cardinal populations. As the cardinal's range expanded, it found hedgerows, small fields and backyard birdfeeders--all sources of seed that the cardinal needs to survive. The milder winters encouraged cardinal movement, but the new habitat is why they stayed.

The cardinal still does not like the cold, though. My mom told me just last evening of cardinals sitting hunched up, covering their legs with their wings, due to the blustery cold Pennsylvania is experiencing.

Will the cardinal spread to Idaho? Other birds have spread here, either naturally or with human help--house finches and valley quail will feature prominently in this weekend's backyard bird counts, but were not originally found in the state. Cardinals are found in southern Arizona, so it is conceivable--although the desert country and mountains would seem to serve as a barrier.

Ornithologists can't be everywhere, so your own observations can genuinely help track changes--like a bird species moving north. Join the Great Backyard Bird Count this weekend, and make a difference for our feathered friends. --Matt Miller

Photo courtesy of Tom Grey.

Monday, February 04, 2008

The Sport of Emperors in Eastern Idaho

In addition to pursuing one of the world's oldest sports, falconers have been responsible for some of the greatest wildlife conservation success stories. Recently, The Nature Conservancy's Sus Danner joined falconers in eastern Idaho for a day afield. This is her report:

Recently I visited eastern Idaho with Jan Peppler, our Director of Philanthropy, to tag along with some friends on a hunting trip. This wasn’t your usual hunting trip, though: our hosts brought neither rifle nor bow – they brought birds. We were near the town of Dubois in eastern Idaho to meet up with Keith and Hubert, two friends of the Conservancy who practice the art and sport of falconry. Eastern Idaho is a stronghold for sage grouse, and it is this game bird we seek.

The Nature Conservancy in Idaho has made conservation of sage grouse habitat a priority, but we can’t do it alone. We are fortunate to live in a state that has so many conservation-minded hunters and fishermen working alongside scientists to protect wildlife habitat here. There is perhaps no better example of this partnership than that of falconers and conservationists.

According to the Peregrine Fund, people have been flying hawks in the Americas since the 16th century. Because falconers hunt wild game with their birds, unfragmented habitat has always been critical to the sport. Falconers support conservation of wildlife habitat as well as the protection of birds of prey in the wild. In fact, falconers were instrumental in recovering the peregrine falcon from near extinction in the 1970s and 1980s. In areas where power lines, roads, and other types of disturbance infringe on wildlife habitat, falconry becomes less feasible. Here in Idaho, above-ground power lines especially pose a hazard to sage grouse, as the birds fly high enough to hit the lines. Not long ago, an above-ground power line was proposed near Medicine Lodge Creek, along a key sage grouse migration route. It was local falconers who called attention to the threat the line posed to wildlife, and local falconers who succeeded in getting that line buried underground.

The expansive sagebrush steppe of Idaho is where sage grouse thrive. Unlike many other birds, sage grouse cannot digest hard foods like seeds. Sage grouse are totally dependant upon sage steppe, as the birds subsist almost exclusively on sagebrush leaves during winter. The sagebrush steppe is critical habitat for sage grouse, the quarry for our hunter friends.

In the shade of the snow-blanketed mountains, the temperature was 1º F. In the sun, the temperature hovered around 32º F. “It’s a heat wave,” grinned Keith. Jan and I got into our warmest coats, snow boots and mittens. I brought along a Russian hat with earflaps, which was so warm it was worth the requisite teasing. We crunched out to the trucks to watch the falconers prepare for our day out in the sagebrush steppe. Below us on the Snake River plain, the giant stacks of hay bales looked like battleships and oil tankers on a bay.

Truck inventory: Four English pointer dogs, two gyrfalcons, one gyrfalcon/peregrine hybrid, one prairie falcon, one crate of homing pigeons, and one crate of pheasants. The falcons balanced comfortably on their Astroturf perches, even as the truck bounced along the rough dirt roads.

Usually the dogs are responsible for finding and pointing the grouse, but we didn’t use them at all this time; there were so many sage grouse that we could find them ourselves. Keith and Hubert taught me how to glass the sagebrush for the telltale gray and white shape of the grouse as they fed on sagebrush leaves. For an amateur, the grouse are difficult to spot, but the falconers could pick them out even at a distance.

Sage grouse are the largest grouse in North America, about the size of a domestic chicken. Their large size means they present a real challenge to the falconer, because a very large falcon must be used to hunt them. Keith and Hubert are experienced falconers, and use the largest falcon in the world, the gyrfalcon, when hunting sage grouse.

Once the falconers found the grouse, Keith exited the truck, moving slowly and quietly. Through my binoculars I could see the grouse looking cautiously at the truck as Keith opened the camper shell and released his falcon. “Once the falcon is up, the grouse will lie down,” Hubert told me, and as I watched, the grouse did just that: flattened themselves to the snowy ground and became as still as statues. The white gyrfalcon ascended until it was a tiny kite-like shape in the blue sky. It flew in broad Lissajous curves in the distance as Hubert and Keith walked through the deep snow towards the immobile grouse.

When the men got close, the grouse flushed, their wings clattering. Keith yelled, “Hey!”, and the gyrfalcon immediately tucked its wings and went into a stoop, aiming for a flying grouse at the bottom of the dive. The movement was so swift I could barely focus my eyes on it. At the last moment, the grouse dodged to the side, and the falcon swept up in an arc above the sagebrush. Keith held out a dead quail on his gloved fist, and the gyrfalcon flew lightly to it. Once on Keith’s fist, the gyrfalcon mantled the quail and devoured it, right down to the feet and primary feathers.

The falconers flew all four birds over the next few hours, and the exhilaration of watching each bird hunt did not wane as the day went on. Each bird had its own style and personality, especially Hubert’s gyrfalcon. When its stoop didn’t result in success, it pursued the grouse like an aerial greyhound, low along the ground and out of sight behind the mountains. Luckily, falconers use radio telemetry equipment to track their birds. Each falcon wears a radio transmitter with a dangling antenna around their neck.

The men were concerned that the falcon would fly too far from us and be lost. We drove quickly through the sagebrush, on rutted roads between deep snowdrifts that threatened to bog down even the high clearance pickup truck. We drove across a highway and into a system of rural roads through farm fields, always following the beeping of the radio receiver. As we drove, the beeping got more insistent. Blessedly, we saw a large silhouette on a power pole next to a lonely farmhouse. Hubert got out of the truck, used a lure to draw the falcon down to the snowy ground, and gently coaxed the falcon onto his gloved hand. We all breathed a sigh of relief as our day of hawking came to a cheerful end. Below, the happy reunion. --Sus Danner

Powerline/sage grouse photo by Hubert Quade; all other photos by Sus Danner.