Today I assist our area’s most celebrated birder in conducting the “BBS” for our government. The Breeding Bird Survey gives me a great perspective when comparing African avifauna to the bird life of my home.
I was sitting in our breakfast room, the corner of the house all windowed, overlooking the lake when a red Corolla with a red canoe on top raced down our driveway and a tall lanky man with wading boots and a funny hat jumped out and ran to the edge of the lake.
When he raised his binoculars my concern turned to relief. I walked out barefoot in my jammies into the 45F spectacularly clear morning and introduced myself, but I all I did was manage to agitate him as he muttered, “Yellow over red. No… pink over red.”
Today I join thousands of other Americans in the “Christmas Bird Count.” (It’s time to change the name to something more secular).
Volunteers across the country survey their regions for what birds remain after the annual fall migration. Since Christmas Day 1900, the bird count has proceeded uninterrupted by wars or depressions.
Ole Kisemei took me to the highest point in the Mara this morning, Kileleoni. The view was magnificent, but what we saw going up and down was even better.
Sports that kill, and oh by the way eradiction of so-called invasive species, are hardly my cups of tea, but what do you think might soften my aversions? How about falconry clearing pigeons from monuments?
So maybe our tea is OK, but Carbofuran is still for sale over the counter in Kenya: Lions are being poisoned with it, vultures picking on the carcasses are going extinct, and so human diseases are spreading and there’s an epidemic of rabies among the growing population of feral dogs.
Human/wildlife conflict isn’t limited to dangerously powerful elephants walking over an impoverished Tanzanian farmer’s watermelon field. Several days ago in a thoroughly modern city in The Cape one of the world’s most endangered animals suffered a serious blow from … car traffic.
There are few animals in the world as endangered as the African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus), sometimes called the Jackass penguin. Just over 25,000 breeding pairs remain of a sustainable population of 1.2 million birds that existed only a half century ago.
This is a far greater catastrophic decline than that of elephants or lions, and it shows no sign of abating.
Two months ago I was in Africa documenting a different migration. Of all the birds I’ve watched going and coming in both hemispheres of the world, one story really stands out: Africa’s carmine bee-eater.
This “migrant” makes three separate migrations, changing its direction three separate times and it tells us probably more about long-term climate change than any bird in the world.
Our six days on Kenya’s Southern Circuit were fabulous, and especially for birders, and believe it or not the entire group are avid birders!
You might think these are parakeets in the Amazon, but they aren’t! They’re Fisher’s Lovebirds coming down to water within ten feet of the dining table at Ndutu Lodge in the southwest Serengeti! This beautiful picture was taken in September, 2011, by Chris Benchetler on one of my guided safaris, as part of my collection of favorite photos from my safaris over the last 39 years. Come back here on July 23 as I begin guiding my last safari of the season in Tanzania.
One of the wondrous moments that a mature birder experiences is when suddenly the puzzle which has been scattered in a hundred million pieces starts to come together.
Rather, state governments have undertaken more scientific hunting seasons that try to achieve an ecological balance deemed appropriate. So, for example, this year Iowa added more hunting days for deer because the first “harvest” was considered too low.
I think this is rather presumptuous if not outright arrogant. Call a spade a spade.
The reserve is a not-for-profit privately managed 2000 acres of wetlands, boreal forests and grass fields. This conjunction of varied ecosystems is unusual this far north and the much of the wetland portion actually dries up not too long from now.
Located just at Fairbanks’ northern perimeter and very close to the university, it’s a heavily used park and not just by birders. Joggers, moms and tots and dog walkers probably out number the birders, but it’s the birders who rule!
I went with Mark Ross, the resident biologist, on the annual “birdathon.” That’s a two-hour race through the area during which Mark tries to identify as many species as possible. The record for this time of year is 36.
That will sound depressingly small to those of us living further south, where I had just completed the breeding bird survey (in the northwestern tip of Illinois) and came up with 86 species. Actual bird censuses over the best of the migration could double both counts.
That still pales in comparison to what I normally see on a two-week East African safari where we normally easily identify over 300 species traveling through areas with a census of well over 700.
As you move south, the biomass grows denser. But what is so special about the Fairbanks reserve is exactly the opposite: here we’re hitting the limit of many inland bird species, and watching how their numbers alter over the years provides one of the fastest and truest glimpses of the health of the planet.
In Africa, Illinois and here in Fairbanks, this year is looking good. Fairbanks residents, for example, identified several birds in healthy numbers that are considered “concerned” species, including the yellow-bellied flycatcher and violet-green swallow.
We saw the swallow in fairly large numbers. This despite some horrible accounts of how the swallows were dying hardly a month ago because there was still so much snow in Fairbanks, which was unusual.
Fairbanks easily gets to 50 to 60 below, but is normally not deep with snow. It’s a dry, near desert environment. This year, however, there was lots of snow, and that wasn’t good for the early arriving migrants like the violet-backed swallow.
You’ve probably read about the heavy snow in other parts of Alaska as well. Last year, for example, the coastal community of Cordova at one point at 15′ of snow on the ground. Contrary to what most people in the lower 48 think, Alaska is not a place that historically records large snowfalls. That’s changing, because the world is heating up.
And how the birds respond to this is fascinating.
Mark said that the heavy snowfall is delaying the start of the migration for obvious reasons. Warblers won’t have insects to eat, cranes can’t forage and swallows can’t nest. But observing that situation this year, he said that as soon as the weather grew warm, “The birds just went into high gear and caught up.”
That’s kind of remarkable. We tend to think of bird migrations as an all-out effort from start to finish, with no real capacity to slow down or speed up. If Mark’s right, that notion is wrong and it could mean that birds are going to adapt to global warming better than the residents of Manhattan.
We had a great time in Fairbanks with some of the group taking the famous Riverboat Discovery cruise, and others visiting friends including Alaska’s longest serving judge who gave them a tour of her chambers here, and Christi and Ken visiting a distant nephew who is young but gold digging!
The town is filled with history, mired somewhat in its remoteness, and the last vestige of modern man before the great tundra and arctic beyond. We won’t go that way. We’re heading south.
To Denali! Stay tuned.