Pacific Flyway Migratory Birds Assisted by Rice Farmers

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Following the introduction of rice as a food crop during the California gold rush, farmers reportedly battled to find the ideal growing conditions for decades before discovering the right combination of terrain and rice varieties which has turned California into the largest producer of medium and short gain japonica (sushi) rice in the United States. Its annual production of more than two million tons of rice makes it the largest rice producer in the nation and contributes over $1.3 billion to California’s economy. However, all of this success has come at a cost to the birdlife that depends on the wetlands that have now been claimed as rice paddies.

The good news is that more than 165 rice farmers have committed to the implementation of a plan to rectify this situation, and working along with the US Natural Resources Conservation Service a system of islands and suitable habitats will be built to provide migratory birds with a place to rest, feed and hopefully breed. An amount of $2 million has been allocated to fund the project in an effort to build up bird populations that have been declining at an alarming rate. California’s Sacramento Valley forms part of the Pacific Flyway which stretches from Patagonia to Alaska, so the planned improvements will make a significant difference to the welfare of migrating birds which already deal with a perilous journey each time they migrate. In addition to building new habitats and islands, the farmers are adapting their irrigation methods for their paddies. Instead of draining the fields completely in winter in preparation for the new season, the farmers will drain the fields slowly, leaving some partially flooded to provide feeding a nesting grounds for water birds, thereby aiding conservation efforts.

Despite the fact that rice paddies now cover up to 95 percent of the native wetland area of Sacramento Valley, dozens of migratory water bird species can be seen here, including American avocets, cinnamon-teal ducks, dunlins, dowitchers and black-necked stilts. Scientists will need at least two years of monitoring and data gathering to determine the success rate of the project, but with the willing cooperation of local farmers, they are hopeful that the new measures, which require only a fraction of the farming land, will result in a significant increase in water bird populations.

2012 Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival

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The Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival will be celebrating its 20th Anniversary in 2012. Keynote speaker for the event will be Dr. George Archibald, who is the Senior Conservationist and Co-founder of the International Crane Foundation. Festival events will include backyard birding presentations, ornithology workshops, field trips, art events, boat tours and children’s activities.

Dates: 10 to 13 May 2012
Location: Kachemak Bay
State: Alaska
Country: United States of America

Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)

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The legendary Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) has long been a symbol of power, wisdom and beauty. Many of the Native American tribes chose to venerate the bird, while European settlers chose to make it the national symbol of the country. As it flies it makes use of thermal convection currents and other environmental factors to give the picture of effortless grace that so easily captivates man’s admiration. Bald Eagles may emit a squeak or a shrill cry punctuated by grunts as they fly but do not make the eagle scream that one so commonly associates with them. As one sees the Bald Eagle soaring high above, it may be seem infallible. However, for much of the 20th century, this beautiful bird was on the brink of extinction.

Also known as the American Eagle, the bird can be found in much of North America and its range stretches all the way from northern Mexico to most of Canada. Those found below the 38 degree North latitude belong to the subspecies leucocephalus while those above this latitude belong to the subspecies washingtoniensis. The Bald Eagle gets its name from the word piebald which was used to refer to the dark and white colouring of the bird’s head and body. The immature Bald Eagle has speckled brown plumage and looks similar to the Golden Eagle. However, the Bald Eagle has feathers down its legs while the Golden Eagle does not. After two or three years, the Bald Eagle starts to reach sexual maturity and it develops its distinctive white head and tailm and its dark brown body. The average adult has a wingspan of about 7 feet (2m) and can weigh between 4.1 and 5.8 kg’s depending on gender. Wild Bald Eagles generally live between 20-30 years, although they may live as long as 60 years in captivity if their needs are well catered for. Nests may be as big as eight feet across and parents share nesting responsibilities. The female may lay between one and three eggs but it is rare for all offspring to fly successfully.

In 1984, the National Wildlife Federation listed hunting, electrocution, collisions in flight and poisoning as the leading causes of death. For many years there was controversy surrounding the effect of the pesticide DDT on the bird but after extensive research it was found that the chemical had little – if any – effect on the Bald Eagle. Today, after years of careful preservation, the species is no longer in danger. There is a stable population of eagles spread across the continent with steady growth being evident in certain parts of the country, and about half of all Bald Eagles being found in Alaska. Bald Eagles are protected by law and illegal possession of either dead or live birds is considered a felony.

Common Loon (Gavia immer)

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The Common Loon (Gavia immer) is a bird belonging to the loon (diver) family that is widespread across the northern United States, Canada, Greenland and Alaska. There are even some smaller populations living in Iceland. Also known as the Great Northern Diver, the bird has a reclusive nature and tends to favour secluded lakes or estuaries. Common Loons are very territorial birds and you will usually find that only one family lives at any given body of water. Common Loons are exceptional swimmers, but they are somewhat awkward on land. Thus they nest as close to water as possible, eliminating the need to walk where possible. Nests are built in hollowed-out mounds of dirt and the female may lay 1-3 eggs in it. Both parents work together to built the nest, incubate the eggs and feed the hatchlings.

Despite its name, the Common Loon is quite striking in appearance. It has Red-eyes and distinctive black and white stripe-like and spotty markings on its neck and wings. Its head and part of its neck are black while its breast is white. After breeding season, the bird loses this striking appearance and becomes brown with a white neck. The Common Loon’s dagger-like beak is perfectly adapted for underwater diving and it can dive to depths of 90 ft. The adult Common Loon is 73-88 cm in length and has a 122-148 cm wingspan. Though graceful in flight, their take-off and landings are somewhat clumsy. During the winter months, the Common Loon is fairly quiet but during summer it becomes a noisy bird with quite an impressive range of sounds which many describe as ‘haunting wailing’, ‘yodelling’ or ‘laughter’. When combined, these sounds are known as a ‘tremolo’ call and they can be quite overwhelming.

The Common Loon lives mainly on fish, such as pike, perch, sunfish, trout and bass, which it catches underwater in lakes. When near the sea, the bird tends to live on rock cod, flounders, herring and sea trout. Unfortunately, large numbers of these birds disappeared from lakes in eastern North America because of acid rain and pollution. Their numbers also dwindled because of lead poisoning, industrial waste contamination and decreasing water levels. Today the bird is protected by the African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement (AEWA).

Emperor Goose (Chen canagica)

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The Emperor Goose (Chen canagica) is a beautiful bird species that can be found in Alaska as well as certain areas in Russia. Whilst it breeds in Alaska and Russia, the geese spend winter in the Aleutian Islands and occasionally a few end up on the Pacific Coast. When in the area, you certainly will want to keep your eyes peeled for these fine birds.

The Emperor Goose is about 18 inches in length with a wing span of 43 inches. The body is gray and the feathers are tipped in black and white. The feet and legs are distinctively orange. Adult Emperor Geese have a notable white head and nape with a black throat and pink bill. The black throat of the Emperor Goose distinguishes it from the Blue Goose. Oftentimes the neck and head will be stained a rust color from the iron of the tundra waters.

Nest sites are chosen by the female Emperor Goose just before she is ready to lay an egg. The nest is carefully lined with dead vegetation and down feathers later added in. The male Emperor Goose keeps a watch on the nest and female, chasing other males off from the nest area. The brave males will even attack predators or distract their attention from the nest. Clutch size for Emporer Geese ranges from 3 to 8 eggs. Incubation by the female lasts 23 to 27 days. Young ones leave the nest in about 50 to 60 days. In the breeding season, Emperor Geese will feed on plant matter. In winter their diet changes to mostly marine vegetation and invertebrates.

As the population of Emperor Geese is reduced and their range is limited, this bird species is vulnerable to a number of threats, including oil spills. Their lower numbers could also be due to subsistence hunting. A number of conservation management guidelines have been created for the preservation of the species. One such guideline states that, should the population drop below 60,000 for a period of 3 years, all hunting must be halted. Large sections of breeding sites are under the protection of the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. Winter habitats are under guard by the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. If you are interested in assisting in maintaining populations of Emperor Geese, there are a number of conservation initiatives which you can support.

King Eider (Somateria spectabilis)

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The King Eider (Somateria spectabilis) is a magnificent bird, receiving its name due to the male’s orange knob on the bill and marvelous blue crown. Whilst the female doesn’t compare to the male in physical attractiveness, both genders are remarkable sea-faring birds and certainly worth looking out for.

With the silhouette of a large diving duck, the King Eider measures in at 18 inches in length with a wingspan of 37 inches. The males and females are distinctly different in appearance. During breeding season the male is easily identified by his gentle blue crown and bright orange bill and knob. His back, flanks, tail and belly are black, whilst the neck and breast are white with a spot of white near the tail. Female King Eiders are well camouflaged in gray-brown feathers with fine barring in black. When breeding season is over the males slowly change to a color similar to that of the females but with black wings and a noticeable white patch upon the fore-wing. You are likely to hear the King Eider before you see it. Males call with a low “croo croo crooo”. Females have a diversity of sounds including grunts and croaks.

The King Eider bird species has a cicumpolar distribution. Nests are built all along Canada’s Arctic Coast, on Arctic Islands and through Alaska. During winter these birds migrate towards the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to the north of the USA. A gregarious bird, King Eidera form large migration groups, some numbering up to 10 000 birds. The King Eider is also found through Russia and Greenland, wintering in the Bering Sea.

King Eiders are marine ducks and thus are found feeding in the ocean’s waters. Their diet consists of invertebrates and mollusks such as mussels, sea urchins and sand dollars. They have even been known to dive to depths of 50 m whilst foraging. When breeding season arrives for the King Eiders the pairs will come onto land, but they will not nest in colonies. Nesting begins in mid June. The female bird will create a scraping in the ground with some shelter from vegetation. The female then incubates the clutch of 3 to 6 eggs for a period of about 23 days. The offspring are either left on their own after hatching or gathered up by remaining females.

American Kestrel (Falco sparverious)

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The American Kestrel (Falco sparverious) can be easily identified by its unique markings. They have a wingspan of 21 inches and measure 8.5 inches in length. The American Kestrel has a short, hooked beak, and the adult males have rust patches on their crown, tail, breast, back and nape. Their bellies are pale in color, and have dark feathers at intervals, which creates a spotted effect. Black spots can also be found on the wings coverts, flanks and on the scapulars. The immature males have streaked breasts and have predominantly rust and black coloring on their backs. The female American Kestrels are streaked with brown across their chests, and their wings and back are predominantly black. This tiny little falcon might not be colorful, but is the most commonly found raptor in North America.

American Kestrels can generally be found in the stretch of land between Alaska and Tierra de Feugo. These North American birds are also comfortable living in populated areas. American Kestrels are extremely interesting birds when it comes to their hunting tactics. A suitable perch to view the ground from is preferable, but they are not dependant on seating arrangements. These North American birds are very graceful during flight, and can reach high speeds quite rapidly. If an American Kestrel is hunting without being able to perch themselves, they are able to hover over a specific area. Hover-hunting is not favorable though, as they are easily spotted by their prey. American Kestrels are raptors, and therefore their prey usually consists of rats, mice, young squirrels and bats. They will also eat other birds, worms, beetles, crickets and dragonflies. Small reptiles and amphibians may also make it onto the American Kestrel’s menu.

During the winter months, it is believed that the females migrate south first, giving them the opportunity to find and establish territories during the winter months. The females prefer the open habitats, and the males are usually found in the more wooded areas. It seems that their winter homes are not by choice, but having to take whatever area is left unoccupied by the females.

The nesting period for American Kestrels starts approximately during mid-March, with the females laying their eggs, usually four to six, in the beginning of April. The incubation period for a female American Kestrel
is between 28 to 30 days. During this time, the male will hunt on behalf of the female. Another strange attribute exclusive to the American Kestrel, is its nesting habits. They are known to squirt feces on the walls of the nest cavity, which is left to dry. The feces together with the remains of half eaten prey does not make this nest the best smelling home in North America, and it is no surprise that the young kestrels decide to fledge the nest after 28 to 30 days.

Arctic Loon (Gavia arctica)

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The Arctic Loon (Gavia arctica) is of medium size, between 56 – 71 centimeters in length, with the male and female being similar in plumage. The males are just slightly larger than the females. The Arctic Loon has gray coloring on its head and nape, and its back is black with white spots. The neck is striped in black and white with white flanks and it is often difficult to see, but there is either green or purple plumaged on the throat. Its bill is straight, almost dagger-like, and it has black eyes.

Being a coastal bird, the Arctic Loon can be found near the ocean or open lakes and will often be seen around tundra lakes in the summer. It feeds on aquatic foods such as crustaceans, fish and mollusks and is known to eat certain amphibians. They are often seen diving into the water, from the surface, to catch small fish. They will also fly to bigger waters, to find food. The Arctic Loons are migratory birds, and will migrate to the coastal areas around western Alaska for breeding. Arctic Loons are very awkward on land, and take to flight only from the water.

During the breeding season, Arctic Loons will construct their nests on the ground, and use soil and plants as building material. The female can lay up to three eggs, that vary between an olive green to brown color, and have black spots. Both parents assist in the incubation period of the eggs, which is approximately 28 to 30 days.

The Loon species has been divided into two categories, namely the Artic Loon and the Pacific Loon. Both are very similar in plumage, and were therefore considered to be the same specie for many years. The difference can be seen on their throats. Arctic Loons have a greenish plumage and the Arctic Loons that originate from Eurasia have a purple plumage, which is the similar purple color that can be seen on the Pacific Loons. It was also not unusual to see Pacific and Arctic Loons, working together off Japans’ coast, in order to secure food during the winter months. The fishermen used to call them heaven’s messengers, as they would locate the schools of fish, making life a lot easier for the fisherman. Due to the decline in the loon population, these amazing coastal birds no longer practice this survival skill. It is also believed that the change in fishing methods have also influenced this practice.

Migration Flights Test Bird Stamina

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It has long been known that migrating birds embark on particularly long and grueling journeys when they cross the oceans. What hasn’t been known for sure is whether or not they somehow stop along the way – until now that is. A Bar-tailed Godwit has been bestowed with the title ‘endurance champion of the animal kingdom’ after completing his epic 7,200 mile flight across the Pacific Ocean nonstop.

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Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival

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Each year the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival gives bird lovers the opportunity to become better acquainted with various bird species. This year will be no different and the festival theme for 2008 is “Shorebirds as International Ambassadors: Connecting Birds, Habitats and People.”

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