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Thursday, December 13, 2012

RESEARCH AND ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION FUNDING

Educating the next generation is key to developing a national environmental consciousness.

For over a decade, Bird Conservation Research, Inc. has provided original, high level environmental planning data on wildlife to municipalities and conservation organizations.  We have as well provided a range of sophisticated environmental education materials to educators.  Most all of our products are made available at no cost to our over 10,000 users per year.  

We approach supporters once each year to ask for their assistance in funding our efforts.  Memberships remain one of our principal means of funding, and we invite your support via this venue.  You may view our membership categories here.  If you are not yet a member, please consider becoming one at this link:

http://www.gofundme.com/1nqlss

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

GEOGRAPHIC PATTERNS IN CONNECTICUT'S FOREST BIRD DIVERSITY


The northern hardwood forests of mountainous northeastern Connecticut support  bird communities characteristic of northern New England.

The latest technical publication derived from the Forest Bird Survey of Southern New England is entitled Factors Influencing Geographic Patterns in Diversity of Forest Bird Communities of Eastern Connecticut, USA.  It has been published in the latest edition of the international scientific journal Ecography.  The definitive version may be viewed by journal subscribers here, although we also will post a freely available version to our own Bird Conservation Contributions next year (per our publishing agreement with Ecography).

The study examines the components of diversity- species richness and species evenness (how individuals are distributed among species)- as they vary across nearly a million acres of forested landscape.  It documents that 1) summer richness and populations are roughly equal in northeastern and southeastern Connecticut, whereas in winter both concentrate toward the coast, 2) temperature explained much of winter diversity patterns, but energy-related variables showed little relationship to summer diversity, 3) the effect of habitat on diversity parameters predominated in summer, although their effect was generally weak, 4) contrary to theory, evenness increased from summer to winter, and 5) support for predictions of a branch of ecological theory known as species-energy theory was limited and primarily restricted to winter data.  Although energy and habitat played a role in explaining community patterns, they left much of the variability in regional diversity unexplained, suggesting that, as is predicted by other ecological theories, a large random component to diversity also may exist.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

SYMPOSIUM VOLUME HIGHLIGHTS ENDANGERED SPECIES, ISLAND ECOLOGY AND EVOLUTION

Expedition participants census a colony of Marianas Fruit Bats.

The Institute for Marianas Studies was established in 1992 at Northern Marianas College in the western Pacific.  Its leader, Dr. Robert Craig, used the Institute as the model for establishing Bird Conservation Research, Inc. (BCR)- the New England non-profit foundation that he also directs.  A principal goal of both organizations has been to involve students in performing high level research that yields products of value to local and regional communities.

In the year of its founding, the fledgling Institute embarked upon a multidisciplinary research expedition to the uninhabited and largely unstudied Mariana island of Aguiguan.  The Institute presented its findings the following year in a symposium volume- The Aguiguan Expedition.  Out of print for nearly 20 years, we are making its 11 papers available again through our web site and through Bird Conservation Contributions- BCR's scientific journal.

Papers cover topics from history to geology to natural history, and include works that provide textbook examples of evolution in oceanic island environments.  Three of the papers deal primarily with birds.  The expedition's most notable achievement was re-discovery of the presumed extinct Aguiguan Reed-warbler (Acrocephalus luscinia nijoi).  This open access volume is essentially identical to the original text, although formatting has been altered to conform to the Contributions series' style.

Monday, September 17, 2012

ON THE TRAIL OF THE ESKIMO CURLEW

A male Eskimo Curlew collected at Cape Cod on Sept. 8, 1879
It wasn't supposed to be curlew weather- stifling hot, dead calm, sun glaring through opaque late summer humidity.  And yet, just like that, there it was- a phantom, slipping from a wet swale into surrounding dune grass- just the kind of spot where a century earlier Yankee gunners might have sought it.  It indeed seemed odd that it should slink away like some overhunted, over-persecuted game bird rather than like a typical shorebird that explodes into the air when approached.  It was a medium-sized brown thing, mottled with white, with a longish beak and a striking splash of cinnamon buff visible as it moved off- a glimpse, to be sure, but the cottony buzz filling my head told me I believed I'd actually seen it.  I had been searching for three years, not nearly long or hard enough, I had thought, but just the same there it was.  Wasn't it?

The fact is that Eskimo Curlews have been gone from the collective memories of hunters and birders for so long that it is no longer possible to be sure of what the right conditions for them might have been.  If we can believe fragmentary 19th century reports, curlew weather occurred when fall storms swept off the north Atlantic, carrying with them exhausted birds blown from pelagic routes that led from Labrador to the Argentine pampas.  These were the days that into the 1880s brought flocks of curlews to Cape Cod, Massachusetts large enough to provide sport and meat for the New England market.  A bird at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard, was purchased from the Boston game market as late as 1902.

The standard thinking is that curlews are now extinct or, even if they are not, they are for all intents and purposes functionally extinct.  And finding them?  There is so much continent to look in that the probability of locating them must approach zero.  So, why bother?  Even a flock could come through some godforsaken spot on some improbable day and who would know?  But- that's the point.  We ought to know, and no one is out looking.

Which brings up another issue: in fifty years of observing birds, I've never had to beat away the crowds to perform field studies.  Few are willing to endure the discomfort, drudgery and dogged persistence required of real field work- not a Saturday afternoon of birdwatching, but the real thing.  If someone actually went out and looked and looked hard enough and long enough in a systematic kind of way, might curlews yet be found and might we then be better positioned to do something about their endangerment?  This is certainly not a project for a new graduate student, who must gather analyzable data, or for an up and coming academic who needs to publish prolifically in order to gain tenure.  Still, shouldn't someone be looking?

Despite the negligible effort being directed toward documenting the continued existence of curlews, credible reports appear every few years- including reports from the vicinity of Cape Cod, where I have focused my efforts.  The Cape and its associated islands, jutting into the north Atlantic as they do, were the main stopover spots south of the fall staging grounds on the coast of Labrador, although conjecture has it that birds from a secondary area at James Bay, Canada, also passed directly over southern New England.

With these possible sightings as my impetus, I began my study by inviting the appropriate Federal agencies to connect their name to the project- not because I sought funding or needed help, but because I knew they should be kept abreast of what I was doing.  National Park Service was most accommodating, but Fish and Wildlife Service proved otherwise. With them, a Boston desk biologist informed me that far better than I had studied shorebirds in this region and found nothing, so there was no reason to grant me a permit to survey their lands.  I explained that those far better biologists hadn't been persistent enough or looked in the right places, but to no avail.

I'd heard all this sort of logic before.  Twenty years earlier, I was told categorically by similar all-knowing bureaucrats that another species- the Aguiguan Reed-warbler- was definitely extinct.  Repeated searches by very experienced researchers had confirmed that it had disappeared from the remote, uninhabited Pacific island of Aguiguan, its only home, and it had been gone for the better part of a decade.  Despite all that, I decided to take a small group of college students to the island for a week of floral and faunal investigations.  We found birds in two days.  It was easy- it was a little island and the species was loudly vocal.  So much for those very experienced researchers.  I don't think they understood how to look.

Finding curlews is quite another matter, however.  In this case, the species is anything but conspicuous and  birds have a whole continent to hide in.  But even this sort of Quixotic quest had a parallel in my experience that gave me some hope that the impossible was still possible.  Back at the beginning of the 1970s when I first began studying coastal birds, I was sitting one steamy summer evening at the Old Lyme, Connecticut boat launch when a silver haired gentleman pulled up in his very large car.  He walked directly over and asked, "Have you heard any?" without ever indicating exactly what he meant.  I recognized him immediately as the venerable Roger Tory Peterson, guru of all birdwatchers, although I didn't let on.  I told him I hadn't, but that I had been sitting there every night listening.  He told me he had done much the same for years but had also had no success.  Without saying so, we were talking about the mythical Black Rail, the first nest of which had been discovered nearby a century earlier.  After that time, the species had disappeared from New England as a breeder.  The rest of our conversation has faded from my memory, although I do remember telling him that I intended to keep trying.

Fourteen year later on a dreary, drizzling evening long after everyone had forgotten I was looking, I found Black Rails within yards of where they had first been discovered in the 1870s.  Trial and error, persistence and a little luck had rewarded me.  Shortly afterwards, I found several summer colonies in the wetlands of the Connecticut River.  I had learned how to find them.  So, my thinking has been that Black Rails provide a better model of what it will take to find curlews.  The rails are notoriously secretive, rare and erratically occurring throughout much of their range, so finding them is painfully hard.  Still, they breed in the temperate zone rather than in the vast and inaccessible arctic.  This alone makes them far easier to find than curlews.  I expect gaining definitive curlew evidence will be at least an order of magnitude more difficult than finding evidence for those enigmatic rails.

During my late summer trek along a path through the maddeningly unstable sands of the Cape Cod dunes, I had, however, also encountered several shreds of physical evidence that linked to my glimpsed bird.  The bird had left tracks at the swale edge that I could measure and photograph.  As I had also measured on museum specimens the middle toes of 70 curlews, I could make a comparison.  The middle toe of the track (minus its claw) was a little less than 4 cm.  The museum specimens averaged just under 3 cm.  If we take into account the expansion of track size in sand and the shrinkage and curvature of toes in specimens, then the tracks were likely at least rather similar in size to those of curlews.

Better yet, a bird had left a feather near the same spot on the swale.  Although it was impossible to know with certainty whether it came from the bird I observed, its markings were at first glance promising.  The cinnamon-buffy colors matched the prevailing colors on curlew specimens and the size and barring was quite like that of flank feathers.  A possible difference, however, appeared at the feather tip.  Here it faded to black-and-white.  In my hundreds of curlew photos, I could find nothing that matched this, although it seemed I had seen feathers like this before.  However, without museum specimens in front of me I could'nt make a positive match.  I have since carefully tucked the feather away, and during one or another upcoming museum visits I intend to find out what it is from.

The bottom line is that I may have found something quite remarkable on that hot day but, alas, the evidence remains inconclusive.  Despite that, I fully intend to continue my search.  If it proves to be anything like my rail adventures, I will be well into my 70s if not 80s, assuming I am still breathing, before I have anything resembling success.  Just the same, long after everyone has forgotten I am even looking, just maybe...


The buffy color, size and barring looked right but the black-and-white tip did not appear consistent with coloring on curlew feathers.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

LATEST BIRD CONSERVATION NEWSLETTER NOW AVAILABLE


Dear Friends,

Welcome to the July, 2012 newsletter of Bird Conservation Research, Inc.  We invite you to make use of our freely available internet resources at www.birdconservationresearch.org, and to keep up with our latest activities via Facebook and LinkedIn.

The expanded PDF version of the newsletter may  be accessed via our web site at http://www.birdconservationresearch.org/publications/newsletters.php. The newsletter reports the latest findings of the Forest Bird Survey of Southern New England as well as news of recent field trips and recent blog posts.

Best wishes,
Robert J. Craig, Executive Director

Friday, June 15, 2012

STATE OF CONNECTICUT FOREST BIRDS

The State of the Forest Birds, a paper prepared by Bird Conservation Research, Inc. for the 2011 Connecticut State of the Birds, is now available through the Bird Conservation Contributions web site.  The paper is newly abstracted and updated from its original version, and includes absolute population estimates for a number of species.  The estimates are based on data gathered during the eight year Forest Bird Survey of Southern New England, which employed the variable circular plot technique to survey 148 transects in both summer and winter.  Most notably,  the data showed that several species thought to be rare in Connecticut, such as the Cerulean Warbler, had populations larger and more widespread than previously believed.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

BIRD CONSERVATION CONTRIBUTIONS DEBUTS


This graph illustrates the seasonal change in habitat occupancy by southern New England's Red-bellied Woodpeckers.  Populations shift subtly but significantly from closed canopy forest (cover values approaching 3) in summer to open canopy forests in winter (see Contribution 17 of the Contributions series for details).


Bird Conservation Contributions is now available for use by the scientific community.  It is a new web site  created by publicly supported, non-profit Bird Conservation Research, Inc. that is devoted solely to showcasing scientific publications.   It features a page that links to each work published exclusively by BCR, and it also has a separate page linking to BCR papers published by other outlets. 

Original scientific contributions to the Contributions series are invited.  Instructions to authors are available on the Submissions page.  The Contributions series offers a low cost and unbiased publishing alternative to traditional print outlets.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

POWERPOINT HIGHLIGHTS FOREST BIRD SURVEY OF SOUTHERN NEW ENGLAND




A newly updated, expanded and re-written PowerPoint presentation available from Bird Conservation Research, Inc. highlights accomplishments of the eight-year long Forest Bird Survey of Southern New England- the largest field study on birds in the history of New England wildlife conservation.  It details  initial findings and charts future plans for the data. Earlier versions of this PowerPoint have been used by regional conservation groups as a tool in persuading conservation agencies to protect extensive parcels of forest habitat.  It can also be used as a teaching tool to demonstrate how science theory and science application (in this case, bird conservation) are interconnected and how scientists proceed from asking questions to gathering relevant data to drawing conclusions.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

VARIABLE CIRCULAR PLOT LAB DEMONSTRATES RESEARCH COMPLEXITY

 
The detectability curve for the Brown Creeper provides a mechanism for computing population densities.
Upgrades of the AP Environmental Science lab, Variable Circular Plot, have yielded a college-level investigation into bird community relationships.  It is based on an actual study of forest bird communities and is designed to introduce students to the complexities of real scientific research.  In particular, it illustrates the following:


1. Modern environmental science research is dependent upon tools made available through advanced mathematics.
2. Large samples are essential for uncovering patterns in nature that are distinguishable from random variation.
3. Statistical considerations like sampling independence must be considered if data gathered are to be validly interpreted.
4. Data may be categorized as continuous or categorical, and doing so affects the type of analyses that can be performed.
5. Real scientific investigations often require teams of individuals to work together in order to gather sufficient data to evaluate hypotheses.
6. A first step in understanding data gathered is exploratory data analysis, which includes graphing raw data to preview them for the occurrence of patterns.
7. Developing greater insights into findings often involves using synthetic data- data derived from raw numbers; e.g.converting numbers to percents, converting counts of birds into population density estimates.
8. Completely understanding what an investigation shows is a complex task that involves examining data from multiple points of view.
9. Because hypotheses to be tested are not explicitly spelled out, students must consider what hypotheses are testable with available data and which of these hypotheses are worthy of consideration.

Friday, May 4, 2012

SCIENTIFIC WRITING PRIMER AND LAB REPORT RUBRIC

The lab activities tab of the Bird Conservation Research, Inc. web site has been updated, notably by the inclusion of a step-by-step primer on how to write lab reports in scientific paper format.  Attached to this is an updated lab report rubric.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

NEW POWERPOINT/ KEYNOTE PRESENTATIONS FOR AP ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE

The latest PowerPoint presentation to follow the national AP Environmental Science curriculum, Land and Water Resources, is now available via the Bird Conservation Research, Inc. web site under the Educators tab.  This and all other slide shows have been prepared to be compatible with the latest versions of PowerPoint and Keynote.  All presentations have updated and expanded content as well, so educators who have been using earlier versions will want to replace them with these new versions.

At present, there are four other PowerPoints available for AP Environmental Science- Earth Systems and Resources, The Living World, Population and Environmental Pollution.  A sixth is in preparation.  In addition, there are four presentations on New England habitats, including Bogs, Beaches, Floodplains and Tidal Marshes.  The first three of these are supplimented with video productions available under the Educators tab.  A new video on tidal marshes is also in production.  Six PowerPoints are available for non-AP environmental science courses.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

PERMANENT RESIDENT BIRD PAPER A WIDELY VIEWED SCIENTIFIC CONTRIBUTION

The first paper published in the newly expanded open access Contributions series of Bird Conservation Research, Inc. is Seasonal Shifts in Population Distributions and Habitat Use by Permanent Resident Forest Birds in Eastern Connecticut.  Since its appearance several months back, it has become one of the most widely viewed papers of the Contributions series, having already been downloaded hundreds of times by researchers from throughout the world.

This paper deals with species thought to be permanent residents in southern New England.  However, although the species are present year-round, the same individuals are not necessarily present.  In fact, overall densities as well as population distributions may change considerably between seasons.  In a number of instances, short distance migrations occur.  The full abstract of the paper follows:

Abstract. I studied 10 permanent resident bird species in unfragmented forests of eastern Connecticut to discover: 1) are populations of resident species truly sedentary or do they seasonally change in density and distribution and 2) are any seasonal changes in species’ occurrences related to environmental parameters in manners that help to explain the changes? I performed duplicate surveys using the variable circular plot technique at 50 systematically placed transects and characterized habitats at 15 plots/ transect. I related population densities to habitat features and also compared the occurrence of individual birds within habitat plots to the characteristics of those plots. The Tufted Titmouse (Poecile bicolor), Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) and Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) showed consistent, significant population declines, whereas the Black-capped Chickadee (P. atricapillus) showed significant increases from summer to winter and the Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) had nearly significant winter increases.  Five species had no clear seasonal trend. Populations of six of 10 species became significantly more concentrated from summer to winter at lower, more southerly elevations. Evidence for the association of species with aspects of habitat structure was limited regardless of the scale used to examine such associations. The lack of strong structural habitat associations may be expected among species often thought of as being ecological generalists, although findings also demo nstrated that the importance of structural features was not annually consistent, perhaps because these features varied in their annual importance. Despite observed population shifts by most resident species, including those thought to be largely sedentary, the principal factor related to seasonal population changes was wintering at lower, southerly elevations. Because elevation and latitude are strongly related inversely to average temperature in Connecticut, winter movements are likely driven by populations seeking less metabolically costly landscapes.

Friday, March 23, 2012

CONTRIBUTIONS SERIES OPENS TO AUTHOR SUBMISSIONS

The publicly supported foundation Bird Conservation Research, Inc. is offering a low cost, simple and unbiased alternative to traditional academic publishing outlets by opening our open access Contributions series to author submissions.  The series was originally established to make foundation research freely accessible to all.  BCR has a mission of conducting scientific research that drives conservation action.  In an era of fading professional societies, we are solvent, stable, growing and with an enormous online viewership.

Open access publications enjoy significant advantages in terms of visibility and frequency of citation.  Our series and associated blogs have high (generally first page) placement via search engines.  The greatly simplified submission procedures, greatly reduced publication costs and double-blind peer review process are described at our web site.  Publication costs are further discounted substantially to BCR members.

Submissions should deal with basic and applied avian research that has conservation implications.  They may be data papers, reviews, syntheses or commentaries.  We do not yet accept book-length manuscripts but expect to do so shortly.  As our Contributions are in a numbered series rather than in a journal issue format, papers immediately appear once accepted.  We base manuscript acceptance principally on whether we view a paper as providing information useful to other researchers in a field.

Submissions are welcome from anywhere in the world and are particularly encouraged from women and minority authors, researchers at small or non-academic institutions, researchers who have single author contributions, researchers with a limited publication budget, and new authors who may need assistance in achieving professional publication standards.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH: BIAS IN SCIENTIFIC PUBLICATION

Science should be about truth and truth alone; not what is expedient, not turf protection, not money, not politics, not prestige, not career advancement.  Of course, all we'd need to do, if we could, would be to quiz Galileo about his experiences with conducting science to know that other considerations have long entered into scientific publication.

A clue that bias remains and perhaps has increased in scientific publication is in the proliferation of 14 author papers in even ornithological journals.  It's hard to imagine that political factors are not at play for this many individuals to be claiming manuscript authorship. I had long thought that ornithology was immune to such phenomena, there being no money to speak of in ornithological research, but I've been forced to reassess this view because factors other than money can also be potent biasing agents.

Here's a personal example: ten years ago, I sent off for publication a manuscript about endangered species designation.  It concerned a field in which I had worked since the early 1970s, so it was one in which I had significant experience.  I was fully aware that the topic was controversial and would likely elicit vigorous debate among peer reviewers, but when the reviews arrived their content was beyond this.  They bordered on if not crossed the line into hysteria.  The most telling of these was by a reviewer who wished the ms. rejected because his group had the same ideas and should be allowed to publish them first.  That group, I learned, was part of a new and well-connected national initiative on bird conservation.  I had unknowingly tread on their toes.  To be sure, some of my findings were not politically correct- but again, science is about truth and not about political expediency or bureaucracies established about a particular paradigm.  Three years passed while I searched for a publishing venue.  Publication only came when I sent the ms. to a journal abroad. Notably, that paper has gone on to be one of the more frequently viewed in that journal's history.  Curious readers may view it here.

Of course, this is only a single instance from a single individual.  Any journal editor will tell you that things can on occasion go wrong with peer review.  The question is, to what degree does bias affect scientific publication in general?  The evidence from a growing body of literature is that bias is indeed pervasive across scientific disciplines.  To summarize some of the notable findings, papers with negative results, with women authors, with foreign authors, and with authors who are not celebrities or from prestigious institutions are at a significant disadvantage during editorial review.  One study suggests that up to 25% of all peer reviews are biased.  Typing bias in scientific publication or bias in peer review into a search engine will bring up numerous titles on this topic.

A solution to at least certain classes of publication bias is double blind peer reviewing, in which the identity of reviewers, authors and their institutions are hidden.  A number of scientific journals have moved to double blind reviewing although, curiously, American ornithological journals have not.  A substantial literature on the effects of double blind reviewing exists, and it tends to indicate significant improvement in acceptance rates of manuscripts from individuals otherwise discriminated against.

An issue related to bias is that of journal impact factor- a metric that purports to rank the relative importance of particular journals to scholars.  In order to maximize impact factor, journal editors are obliged to publish what they view as the most novel or otherwise important studies.  From a business perspective, such an approach make sense.  However, from a science perspective it is much more dubious.  How many sound papers with hard won data have we not seen simply because they weren't sufficiently sexy?  How might such selectivity bias the entire view of the state of a particular discipline?

Fortunately for us mere mortals working in the field of science, the internet and open access venues show great promise for ending the stranglehold on publishing long enjoyed by traditional scientific journals.  They also offer real possibilities for curbing peer review bias. Search engine visibility is now what really determines what papers get viewed, and there's more than one way to get that sort of visibility.  I'll write more on that last point later...


Friday, January 27, 2012

AN ENDANGERED ISLAND BIRD ON THE BRINK




Sunset on the beach at Rota, Mariana Islands.

I've been having tropical thoughts again.  It is something I do- flashbacks brought on by a rose-tinted sunset, by a certain houseplant scent, by some seemingly insignificant detail that transports me back to a separate lifetime.  It was a long time ago now, the better part of twenty years, and yet it doesn't seem that way.  My father warned me that memory was like that.  He would speak of exploring the Panama jungle seventy years hence and say it all seemed like yesterday. 

My tropics were those of the Pacific and its remotely seductive islands that drove even Darwin to distraction.  The natives often described their home islands as paradise and, indeed, there were large elements of those landscapes that were difficult to distinguish from anything other than that hackneyed word.  My wife, son and I still talk of personal flashbacks in a kind of private family speak that we agree we largely can't share with others.  They could never really understand.

The specific instance of my latest digression began when I realized during an extended conversation that I was thirsty.  My thoughts drifted from that present thirst to real thirst- the kind that sets in when even thick jungle shade does nothing to alleviate the saturating humidity of a tradewindless tropical afternoon.  A day in the field there always involved carrying at least a half gallon of water and even then, when field time ran to 14 hours, supplimentation of milk from machete-sliced coconuts was a staple.  Indeed, to this day I have not shed the machete from my backpack.  One never knows when one might need to seek out a coconut, although, to be sure, I've never again had field clothes so ringing wet with perspiration that even sun-steamed coconut milk appeared as a delicacy not to be missed.

That was the backdrop for what I did- sublime, but awful, and ultimately that awful was a key ingredient in bringing me back to my present reality.  In that world, the constant strain of dealing with multiple species endangerments, true endangerments, ground like an undigestable stone in my stomach.  Among other projects, I was in charge of an effort to save an otherwise unknown little bird, the Rota White-eye, from its catastrophic free-fall toward extinction.  I estimated that it had declined nearly 90% in ten years, and it had contracted its range to small patches of high elevation cloud forest.  It was all so hard to fathom that this was happening on largely undisturbed, dreamily jewel-like Rota in the Marianas Islands chain.  When one looked down on Rota from the air, it seemed inconceivable that anything could be amiss on a vision so beautiful.


The first photograph of a wild, highly exposed Rota White-eye.

When I began my work on these white-eyes in 1990, how to distinguish males from females was not even known, so my first step was to learn something of them.  I had already studied related (presumably the same) white-eyes on nearby islands (http://www.birdconservationresearch.org/pdf/pub_5_microhabitat.pdf), so I had some idea of where to begin.  As soon as I started observing, however, I realized that this bird was something different; it didn't look the same, it didn't sound the same.  The differences were so profound that, like several before me, I expected it was an undescribed species, a suspicion that ultimately proved to be true.

I initially focused on studies of social behavior and feeding (http://elibrary.unm.edu/sora/Wilson/v106n01/p0165-p0169.pdf), and these provided clues about causes for the decline (http://www.birdconservationresearch.org/pdf/pub_1_conserv_wh_eye.pdf) that meshed well with suspicions raised as early as the 1980s.  Fifty years before, white-eyes had been common and widespread, but during the intervening years a predatory bird introduced from southeast Asia, the Black Drongo, had expanded its populations.  As it expanded, white-eyes declined and contracted their range.  The only places where white-eyes remained were the high elevations where drongos were still uncommon- circumstantial evidence for cause and effect, to be sure, but this pattern made sense in terms of what I was observing.  The white-eyes were tiny, highly social, flocking birds that frequently flew in groups above the forest canopy, exposing themselves to drongo predation.  They would be the first and easiest bird target of this new predator.  In the absence of any evidence for a disease connection, drongo distributions seemed the most likely smoking gun related to the decline.

Time was not a luxury with a population showing such rapid decline.  Some action had to be taken or time could very easily run out.  My decision was to implement a program to reduce drongo numbers so that their pressure on the white-eye populations, if any, would decrease, thereby buying some time for developing a permanent conservation solution.  At the same time, I began making the case to appropriate agencies that a captive breeding program needed to be initiated while there were still enough birds left to catch.  There was no guarantee that the rate of decline was linear, and if it were approaching what mathematicians refer to as a vertical asymptote, then the time to extinction was approaching zero.  The asymptote phenomenon had actually just happended on neighboring Guam, where within a matter of months the Guam Flycatcher had gone from saveable to extinct.

After clearing a series of bureaucratic hurdles, including going through military-style firearms training in order to be licensed to carry out this project, I began the control program in 1991 with a small group of islander volunteers, my 12 year-old son, several old shotguns, a single pickup truck (which, notably, had a board as a front seat and a semi-dead battery) and 1350 rounds of ammunition.  This was the way that real conservation happened in the trenches.  Despite the shoestring nature of the project, within a few weekends we had eliminated 1,100 drongos (20% of their total population) principally in the heart of the white-eye's remaining range.  I used our hunting data to estimate that with only 40 field days, we could reduce drongo populations to a point where they would cease to represent a white-eye threat. 

I then sent out repeated pleas to the overseeing agencies for more ammunition and the time to complete the project.  We had a strategy, a team in place and the will to move forward.  Instead, a year passed and still no agency action followed.  I did, however, succeed in generating interest in starting a captive breeding program.  By 1993, birds were being caught and a breeding effort begun.  I took the first one out of a mist net with shaking hands.

At that point, my direct involvement with the Rota White-eye mostly came to an end.  I chaired the Pacific Island Recovery Team for a few years afterward and wrote a recovery plan for a different endangered species, but otherwise it was back to New England for me.  My projects in the Pacific passed to the next generation of researchers.  Within several years of my departure, another population survey confirmed my estimate of a 90% population decline.  At about the same time, an effort began to redefine the reason for decline as one of habitat limitation, presumably so that "critical habitat" could be defined.  Observation, however, contradicted assertion.  Ample evidence demonstrated that birds had not in the past and were not presently restricted to one particular forest type.  Instead, direct sightings of drongo predation on white-eyes provided still more evidence that drongos were a likely agent of white-eye decline.  A second albeit abortive effort then began to control drongos in the same locations where I had hunted them years before.  This effort was abandoned when the researchers decided the hunting was too difficult. 

During one final trip made to Rota in 1995 as part of a recovery team meeting, I made a vertical ascent up the steepest slopes leading to the island's central plateau in order to discover whether unknown white-eyes were inhabiting  the nearly pristine forests that cloaked the area.  In a day-long climb, I encountered no birds until I reached the plateau's summit.  Here I found a flock that fed at length from a grove of introduced bamboo- an observation that further illustrated the weakness of the habitat limitation argument.  I made one final try at finding birds on my way down, although as the evening light faded I found myself stranded on a ledge from which I could escape only by sliding down a cliff on a fig vine- a nonfun, heart-pounding experience during which the coral rocks tore the rear off  my pants.  As I trudged the last miles back to my hotel room, I was glad it was dark.  That was my last field day on Rota.

That brings us to the present, where even after all these years I feel disappointment about the way the white-eye saga has unfolded.  The species still persists, suggesting that its decline has not accelerated as I feared it might.  However, the rate of decline is unclear from published reports, which have not been updated in over ten years.  Furthermore, captive breeding efforts have since the 1990s produced few positive results and are now largely abandoned.  In fact, aside from a 2006 federal designation of critical habitat, little appears to be happening on the white-eye front.  Complacency, I fear, has settled in. 

Several considerations come to mind concerning all this: science is difficult; conservation  is harder.  It is easier to define a problem as too difficult than to do anything about it, which appears to be what's happened in the case of the Rota White-eye.  However, one must carefully pick the causes one wishes to take up; there isn't enough life energy and life isn't long enough to conclude many successfully.  I've now spent ten years on a project that I've decided is the one where I can have a significant impact (read about this here).  It will likely take me through to the end of my career.  I hope for this little bird's sake that someone choses it as their cause.

Robert J. Craig

Friday, January 6, 2012

BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE FOREST BIRD SURVEY OF SOUTHERN NEW ENGLAND



This image from Google Earth portrays the vast and still heavily forested landscape of southern New England.





When The Atlas of Breeding Birds of Connecticut was published in 1994, the notion of conducting a fully quantitative survey of Connecticut’s birds was dismissed as a practical impossibility. Indeed, conducting sophisticated scientific research is difficult even in the laboratory. When field work is involved, it can become truly daunting.

Despite the inherent difficulties, The Forest Bird Survey of Southern New England carried out a quantitative survey of both Connecticut and Rhode Island. In addition to the drudgery of compiling and proofreading titanic stacks of data, there were new branches of mathematics to learn and new statistical techniques to master.  Gathering field data was the most difficult task, however. It was quite something other than simply taking a walk in the woods. It instead involved walking a thousand miles and repeating the same sampling protocol 8880 times over eight years, winter and summer.

Winter proved to be the most challenging season for collecting data. Conditions could become dangerous, such as when temperatures dropped well below zero, when icy rivers needed to be forded, and when walking across thin ice on beaver ponds ended in breakthroughs. Situations such as these led to hypothermia and frostbite. There were as well times when sampling schedules precluded taking time off to heal from injuries or to recuperate from illnesses.

When analyses are complete, the survey will provide the first ever systematic, fully quantitative and statistically defensible view of the distribution, populations and habitat use of the forest birds in Connecticut and Rhode Island. However, the scale of the investigation is so massive that even after two full years of data analysis, most data are yet to be examined thoroughly.