Waterbird Conservation in the African-Eurasian Flyway

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As a joint effort between BirdLife International and Wetlands International, and supported by UNEP-GEF (the United Nations Environment Program -Global Environment Facility) and a number of donors and partners, Wings Over Wetlands was the first international wetland and waterbird conservation project to take place in the African-Eurasian flyway region. The project initially ran over four years (2006-2010) and enlisted the aid of international conservation organizations and national governments to support migratory waterbirds in the African-Eurasian region.

Wings Over Wetlands (WOW) also supported field projects in eleven wetland areas in twelve countries within the region – Haapsalu-Noarootsi Bays in Estonia; Biharugra Fishponds in Hungary; Nemunas River Delta in Lithuania; Banc D’Arguin National Park in Mauritania; Namga-Kokorou Complex in Niger; Hadejia-Nguru Wetlands in Nigeria; Saloum-Niumi Complex in Senegal and Gambia; Wakkerstroom Wetlands in South Africa; Dar Es Salaam Wetlands in Tanzania; Burdur Gölü in Turkey and Aden Wetlands in Yemen.

While the original WOW project has run its course, leading international conservation organizations dedicated to protecting of waterbirds and their habitats developed the Critical Site Network (CSN) Tool giving easy access to information on the sites deemed critical for waterbird species. As one of the major achievements of the WOW project the CSN tool provides information for more than 300 migratory waterbird species, highlighting what can be achieved when like-minded conservation organizations work together. This wealth of information assists authorities at local, national and international level to identify the network of sites essential to specific waterbird species, thereby enhancing conservation efforts.

The WOW project also strengthened the implementation of AEWA – the African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement – which lists 255 species of birds that are dependent on wetlands for their annual migration and breeding cycle. These include many species of pelicans, grebes, cormorants, divers, herons, rails, storks, ibises, flamingos, spoonbills, ducks, geese, swans, waders, cranes and gulls. Parties to the agreement are required to implement conservation measures set out in the AEWA Action Plan, including habitat conservation, research and education projects and management of human activities. The 5th session of AEWA representatives was held in La Rochelle, France on 14-18 May 2012, under the theme of “Migratory Waterbirds and People – Sharing Wetlands”.

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.

Bills Regulate Body Temperature

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On 20 July 2011 the research done by a team of scientists from the well-known Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center was published in the Ecography journal, and has revealed more insight into the use of bird’s bills. Working at the Conservation Biology Institute of the Smithsonian Center, the team focused their attention on five different sparrow species that prefer the marshes of various regions, and discovered that they use their bills for more than just eating food and foraging. It was shown that not only are their bills adapted to their diets, but they can also assist birds to regulate body heat.

There were ten sparrow species and their subspecies that the team found to enjoy the salt marshes that are located along the North American Gulf Coasts, and they looked at more than one thousand three hundred individual birds. When measuring the individual birds and looking at their bills, along with the temperatures where they reside, it has been recorded that the size of their bills were determined by this feature as well, as their bills assisted them to regulate their body heat during the soaring temperatures of the summer. The higher the average summer temperature of a specific region, the bigger the bills were on the birds. To release their body heat, it was determined that the birds are able to transfer blood into the tissue that is found in their bills and from there the heat is expelled into the air. Therefore the bigger the bill on the bird, the more heat is able to be released into the air.

This was confirmed by comparing the birds in the different areas, as the birds living in the cooler marsh areas have smaller bills than those living in higher temperatures. Leader of the research team and director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, Russ Greenberg, commented that is has been known that in animals, such as rabbits and seals, blood is able to be increased to the extremities of animals that are not well insulated, but now it is known that birds are able to cool down their body temperature through their bills, as well as retain their body moisture, which they so desperately need in such high temperatures. The team is now continuing their research with Brock University physiologists, trying to form a more detailed database by using thermal imaging.

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.

Little Stint (Calidris minuta)

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The Little Stint (Calidris minuta) is located throughout Europe and Africa, and is generally found in areas that have water sources. It prefers mudflats, beaches, estuaries, island tundra and coastal tundra. This 13 to 18 centimeter little wader bird is part of the Sandpiper family and is a rusty brown color over its breast, face and neck, with spots of black. Its back and wings are scale-brown and it has a white belly. The back also has an extremely distinctive white “V” when the bird is in flight. Both sexes look similar and in winter the adult Stint changes in color to gray-brown streaks and dull brown wings and upper body parts. The Stint has black eyes and a dagger-like bill. This little bird only weighs a mere 23 grams and has a wingspan of about 28 to 30 centimeters. Flight is very swift, with extremely rapid wing beats.

There is sometimes a little confusion when identifying the Little Stints amongst the other wader birds. It is therefore important to take extra care in noticing the plumage pattern on the wings, coloring and being aware of the little hind toe that is visible on the Little Stints’ feet. Birds such as Sanderlings are generally paler in color and larger in size, while Timmincks’ Stints have yellow-green coloring on their legs. This wader bird feeds mostly on insects but will also feed on mollusks and crustaceans. Being a migratory bird, the Little Stint will migrate to Asia and Africa during the cold, winter months.

During the bird breeding season, nests will be constructed from a ground scraping, and is lined with dwarf birch leaves and willow. The female Stint will lay between three to five eggs, which are either olive green or yellow in color and have red-brown spots on the shell. Both the male and female will be active in the 21 to 23 day incubation period. It is not unusual for the Little Stint to incubate two nests at the same time. After the chicks have hatched, it takes approximately fifteen to eighteen days for the young chicks to learn to fly, and fledge the nest.

Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus)

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The beautiful Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus) is one of the three gannet subspecies that are found in the world. While the Northern Gannet is commonly found in the North Atlantic, the other two species are found on the south coast of Africa and in Tasmania and New Zealand so it is unlikely that you will wrongly identify them. These birds are rather unique since they can see forward with both eyes (binocular vision) – something which not many bird species are capable of. They are also powerful and fast flying birds who are capable of gliding just above the surface of the water for hours – though they do not take off or land well. They are excellent divers and eat small fish such as herring, mackerel, capelin, sandlance and sometimes on squid which can be found near the surface of the water. Northern Gannets have also been called ‘solan’s’, ‘solan geese’ and ‘solant birds’.

The adult gannet has striking white plumage with narrow grey spectacles and jet-black wingtips that taper to a point. During breeding season their head and neck take on a delicate yellow tint that contrasts with their blue eyes and blue-grey bills beautifully. Males and females look the same and juveniles are brown with white flecks. These youngsters get progressively whiter each season until they get their adult plumage at the age of four or five. Adults are 87-100 cm in length with a wingspan of 165-180 cm. Gannets are migratory and normally spend their winters at sea. However, during breeding season they will head to their breeding grounds – usually to the same nest until it is simply too filthy to use – where they perform elaborate greeting rituals with their partner.

Gannets live in large groups called gannetries, which can be found on steep cliffs or offshore islands. This isolation from land or steepness means that nesting birds are usually safe from predators. Northern Gannets will often abandon their nests if they are disturbed. Often nesting birds will nest so closely at these colonies that the cliff may appear to be covered in snow. The female lays a single egg, which both parents incubate. After hatching both parents care for the chick until it is old enough to fend for itself. Once it has left the nest, it learns the specialised ‘plunge-diving’ technique through instinct.

Purple Martin (Progne subis)

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The Purple Martin (Progne subis) is generally recognised as being the largest North American swallow. Its body measures about 20 cm in length and it has a wingspan of 39-41 cm. The Purple Martin is an incredibly acrobatic flyer. Today they are commonly found nesting in backyard birdhouses. The Purple Martin has been making use of nesting boxes in eastern North America for well over a century. This is the case because Native Americans once hung up empty gourds for these birds to use as homes, starting a tradition that European settlers continued on their arrival. While those birds found in the eastern part of the country use birdhouses almost exclusively, those in the west tend to prefer natural cavities.

Purple Martins are not as easily identified as other bird species due to the fact that they display a lot of variance until about two years of age. The adult bird is a large swallow with a large head, thick chest and broad, pointed wings with a slightly forked tail. The male’s entire body is a bluish black while the underparts of the female are light in colour. Males approaching adulthood look similar to females but with solid black feathers randomly erupting on their chest. Females approaching adulthood do not yet have a steel blue sheen on their backs. While most of these birds are found in eastern North America, some can also be found between British Columbia and Mexico on the west coast. Those living on the west coast generally make use of woodpecker holes and cactus cavities as nesting sites. They are also somewhat paler than their eastern relatives.

Unfortunately Purple Martins are often targeted by House Sparrows and Common Starlings – two invasive species which kill Martins in order to make use of their nest cavities. In order to have these beautiful little birds breed successfully, these invader species must be actively controlled and removed from their nesting site. Purple Martins are migratory and they generally fly to the Amazon basin in the winter months. They feed mainly on insects which they usually catch in mid flight. They also drink their water by scooping it up whilst flying.