Effects of Polar Vortex Not Over for Birds

This year’s polar vortex as of January.
Image courtesy of WeatherBell.com

Although the effects of this year’s polar vortex—which blanked much of the eastern U.S. and Canada with snow and freezing temperatures—are mostly coming to a close, the effects on bird populations may be a little longer lasting. In many areas, ice sheets covered waterbodies that diving birds traditionally use to feed on fish and other aquatic life, resulting in starvation in many cases.

While there isn’t much we can do in the short term other than hold out hope, there are several things we can do to make unpredictable events like this more manageable for bird populations across the continent.

In a recent guest column for Buffalo News I discussed measures we can take to support healthy bird life both here at home and in their summer breeding grounds up north in the boreal forest—without which we would have few wintering migrants to even begin with.

Here’s a snippet:

“While there is little we can do in the short term for these birds, there are long-term actions that can ensure these and other species will remain a part of our landscape. Here on the birds’ wintering grounds, we need continued efforts to ensure clean waters with healthy populations of their aquatic food sources.

But these birds also need help in their summer breeding grounds – the vast boreal forest of northern Canada. Each spring, birds like white-winged scoters and red-breasted mergansers begin a journey north that takes them to pristine and isolated lakes and ponds sprinkled across Canada’s boreal forest region in the millions.”

You can read the full article here:

Highlighting Canada’s ‘Cold Amazon’

Nahanni National Park in the Mackenzie River Basin
Credit: Steve Kallick

The massive Mackenzie River Basin is not only Canada’s largest watershed, it’s also home to some of the most interesting and important areas in Canada’s boreal forest both from a natural and policy standpoint. It contains breathtaking scenery like recently-expanded Nahanni National Park, which features towering mountains interspersed by dramatic, lush river valleys. It contains extensive wetlands and waterways, including some of North America’s most critical waterfowl breeding and migratory stop-over areas like the Peace-Athabasca Delta, the Slave River Delta, the Mackenzie Delta, and the Ramparts. It’s wetlands and waterways also make it an incredibly rich region for migratory waterfowl in general.

However, it’s southern portion in Alberta and British Columbia is home to some of the most altering and extensive resource development anywhere in the boreal, and has even led to inter-provincial discussions about shared resources like water. Much of its drainage basin in the Northwest Territories includes areas that have been temporarily protected through visionary First Nation-led land use plans, but whose permanent status is still in limbo.

So it should come as no surprise that groups like the Gordon Foundation have taken particular interest in the region. They recently embarked on creating this fascinating mini-movie on the area:

Cold Amazon: The Mackenzie River Basin from WDGF Channel on Vimeo.

Here’s an excerpt from their website on why they created the film:

At 1.8 million sq. kilometres, the Mackenzie River Basin is Canada’s largest watershed, draining a full 20 per cent of Canada’s landmass, but many in both northern and southern Canada are unaware of its importance, or even its existence. It is for this reason that the Gordon Foundation set out to make Cold Amazon, a documentary film released online today.

Narrated by celebrated northern journalist Paul Andrew, Cold Amazon tells the story of the Mackenzie River Basin, highlighting the importance and vulnerability of the mighty watershed through the impassioned voices of those who rely on its health and work for its protection.

If there’s a place that deserves a ‘worth of attention’ tag, the Mackenzie River Delta is certainly on that list. So you can imagine why we’re pleased to see this lengthy and detailed video highlighting its importance. You can find out more about the Gordon foundation at www.gordonfoundation.ca.

Another (surprising) addition to forest-climate connection

Boreal forest in the Northwest Territories, Canada
Credit: D. Langhorst

At least among scientists and those closely following climate change, it should come as no surprise that protecting forests is one of the most crucial components to lessening the effects of climate change. Not only do forests pull ever-increasing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, they store it safely within plant matter and soils immediately below—acting as a partial climate neutralizer or carbon bank against the rapid pace of climate change. Estimates vary, but deforestation and land use changes are estimated to account for an average of around 12% of all human-related emissions, roughly equivalent to all of the world’s cars, trucks, planes, and transport combined.

The Canadian Boreal Forest alone (our particular area of interest) stores 208 billion tonnes of carbon in its trees, wetlands, and soils. That number may not mean much to most people, but here’s one that may: this is equivalent to more than 20 years’ worth of the entire world’s carbon emissions at 2012 levels—including the heavy-hitters of fossil fuels, cement production, and forest loss.

This week yet another revelation about forests’ invaluable role in softening the effects of climate change emerged.

Anyone who has strolled through a pine forest knows the strong, yet alluring scent emitted from pine trees. As it turns out, this refreshing fragrance isn’t just beneficial to our experience with nature. According to a recent study in the journal Nature, the scents that pine trees release actually creates particles in the atmosphere that help reflect sunlight back into the sky. In turn, this helps promote the creation of clouds and helps keep our planet cool and healthy.

It seems that the better we learn and understand trees and forests, the more and more we come to appreciate them beyond their inherent beauty. I suspect that as time goes on and research becomes even more fine-tuned we will continue find countless more benefits to protecting the nature we have all come to know and love.

Marvels of Migration: Hudsonian Godwits

Hudsonian Godwit

Credit: Len Blumin via Flickr

You may have heard about the Center for Conservation Biology before, particularly if you regularly visit this blog. They were the organization behind the fascinating satellite tracking program for migratory Whimbrels, which we’ve blogged about extensively in the past (including here, here, and here).

As it turns out, they’re continuing their great work and now expanding to other species. The Hudsonian Godwit (67% of which breed in the boreal forest) is one of the longest migrating birds known around the world. After breeding over the summer up in the boreal and arctic regions of North America, they typically fly all the way to the southern reaches of South America to winter. It’s a natural marvel to say the least and, as of now, something we can track and follow from the comfort of our own homes and office.

The Center tagged two Hudsonian Godwits over the past summer up in the Mackenzie River Delta of the Northwest Territories. This is a huge breeding ground for numerous boreal birds—godwits being no exception. After staging for a few weeks near Churchill, Manitoba and the Hudson Lowlands—a birder’s paradise and a place I was fortunate enough to visit with some folks from Audubon this last summer (documented on the blog here, here, and here)—the two godwits embarked on an epic flight all the way to South America.

Migrations of tagged godwits Kendall and Sig
Credit: Center for Conservation Biology

You can read the full details about their captivating journey here >

Eagle Steals Cam in Aboriginal Rangers Land

This funny and amazing story about a camera-stealing White-bellied Sea-Eagle is making the social media rounds, but particularly interesting for us is that it took place in one of the wild areas of Australia that is watched over by the Aboriginal Rangers—a unique and inspiring program that puts Aboriginal people in the front seat for preserving and managing their traditional lands in a sustainable way.

Here’s more background on this unusual story. Watch the video they were able to extract from the camera below:

The above mentioned program caught the eye of many Canadians, which eventually led to a visit from some of the Rangers themselves, who met with First Nation leaders in the Canadian Boreal Forest. The Globe and Mail covered this insightful visit and collaboration.

Jeff has also recently written about the Rangers program in blogs both on this site and in National Geographic.

It is intriguing to think about whether or not a similar type of land management program may someday come to the Canadian Boreal and the hundreds of First Nation communities throughout this great forest.

Highlighting the Saskatchewan River Delta

Saskatchewan River Delta
Credit: Ducks Unlimited

This great story and photos just came out in Canadian Geographic about the Saskatchewan River Delta—one of the ten cool biodiversity hotspots that we profiled in our report last May. Referred to as a ‘water bird factory’ in the article, this story gives great background to the issues facing the future of this incredible wetland and is well worth the read!

Full link: http://www.canadiangeographic.ca/magazine/dec13/future-of-saskatchewan-river-delta.asp



Are roads the largest threat to the boreal?

Lone caribou crossing a road in the Canadian Boreal Forest
Credit: Valerie Courtois

We tend to think of roads as simply a means of connecting people and things from Point A to Point B. And in the most literal sense, this is true.

However, for the world’s few remaining large wilderness landscapes—think of the Canadian Boreal, the Amazon, or the Australian Outback—they amount to much, much more. In these rare untouched landscapes, roads are the first step in ushering in a new wave development and human activity. Just as railways that opened up much of the West and Midwest U.S. to immigrant settlements, ranching, and agriculture resulted in the near extinction of Native Americans, buffalo, and the bulk of the original prairie ecosystems, roads are now cutting through previously pristine wilderness areas and, in most cases, are the first of many to come.

This catchy, unnarrated video put together by the folks at roadfree.org illustrates exactly how the seemingly small footprint of a road is really the first domino to fall in a series new developments and dissections of once pristine habitat:

In the case of the Canadian Boreal, it is very common to see a single access route to a remote mineral deposit or forest tenure eventually open up into a spider web of roads and associated developments. What starts out as a single mine in a remote pocket of the boreal eventually opens the floodgates for a myriad of human activity and habitat loss. Constructing roads and transporting materials through the dense and often wet boreal forest is expensive for development companies. But once those access routes are installed, the entire surrounding region becomes accessible and far more economically viable for additional projects and exploitation.

Just as a single drop of oil quickly spreads and coats the entire surface of a puddle, single projects in the boreal forest eventually become the epicenter of sprawling webs of development and extraction. While the graphic images of destructive mines or unsustainable clearcuts are the ones that typically garner the most attention and emotional reaction, the act of getting to those places may in fact be more damaging to the forest in the long run.

Leaving Spain with Hope

WILD10 conference in Salamanca, Spain
Credit: Jeff Wells

I looked out the window of the plane and 34,000 feet below was the coast of Portugal. As it receded into the distance and the view out the window shifted from the browns, greens, and reds of land to the blue of the trackless ocean, I thought of the Portuguese fishermen who left that same coast in the 1500’s and set out for their secret fishing grounds in the New World. They were among the first regular European visitors to the boreal coastline of North America. They left a region that had already seen major land-use changes during the course of a thousand years and came to a land inhabited by people whose footprint on the land was vastly lighter. Amazingly, now 500 years after the first arrival of Portuguese fisherman in North American shores, a massive part of the Boreal Forest region of Canada still remains largely ecological intact and with its indigenous inhabitants still there.

I was on this plane because I was on my way back from the World Wilderness Congress—an event that has taken place now ten times since 1977. This year’s congress, called WILD10, was held in Salamanca, Spain, from October 4-10, and was an amazing coming-together of conservationists ranging from scientists, policy gurus, government officials, artists, musicians, young people, and more.

It was exciting to see the European movement—called Rewilding Europe—working toward protecting and restoring Europe’s largest blocks of intact forest as they try to bring back populations of gray wolves, European bison, Eurasian lynx, and many other species.
There were a number of presentations on the much-needed global ocean conservation movement that has been a major part of the Pew Charitable Trusts Global Ocean Legacy program and the continuing successes around the world at establishing marine protected areas including an initiative in California that integrated the rights of indigenous peoples into the conservation framework.

It was gratifying to see a major emphasis at the Congress on the need to keep large ecological systems free of industrial land-use change in order to maintain their inherent conservation values as the International Boreal Conservation Campaign has been advocating for in the Boreal Forest region of Canada and Alaska. Some speakers reported that 50% of the nation of Bhutan was under formal conservation protection and that Namibia has at least 34% of its land in some form of protection and is moving towards 50%.

Perhaps the most refreshing stories at the gathering were those of the empowerment of indigenous communities in the decision-making for the future of their own lands. Millions of hectares in a number of African countries are now in what are called “community conservancies” and wildlife populations are rebounding where they exist. In Australia where Pew’s Outback Australia program is active, there are now over 49 million hectares in Indigenous Protected Areas and a force of over 700 indigenous rangers are working to restore the land. The Kayapó peoples of Amazonian Brazil are protecting an area of 11 million hectares against an onslaught of development surrounding them. Russ Mittermeier, President of Conservation International, reported that over 70% of the Brazilian state of Amapá is now in Indigenous Reserves and Protected Areas. The Saami—indigenous people of northern Scandinavia—are exploring a new Greater Laponia initiative to have greater authority over the future land-use of their ancestral lands and more opportunity to maintain and restore the ecological values of that European boreal region.

Cree children picking wild blueberries in Northern Quebec
Credit: Natasha Moine

Indigenous communities of Canada’s Boreal Forest region are also among the world leaders in developing and implementing what speakers at the WILD10 conference termed “Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas.” The communities of the Pimachiowin Aki proposed World Heritage Site in Ontario and Manitoba, the Grand Council of the Crees and its member communities in Quebec, the Innu and Inuit in Labrador and Quebec, the Dehcho in the Northwest Territories, and the Mushkegowuk Council in Ontario—these are among the indigenous governments leading the way in developing comprehensive land-use plans for their traditional territories that balance conservation and development.

This is just a tiny glimpse into the kaleidoscope of impressions and understanding that I came away with from WILD10. One thing I left feeling sure of was that the knowledge, ideas, and inspiration of people working toward conservation of the earth’s last wild places is surely a sign of hope for our world and its people.

What does the Amazon have to do with the boreal forest?

The Kayapó homeland in Brazil stands out as an island of intact forest against a surrounding onslaught of deforestation (fires highlighted in red, which were previously rare before development in the surrounding area). Photo Credit: NASA

Upon first glance, the Amazon and Canada’s boreal forest might not have too much in common, outside of the fact that they’re both large forests. But upon looking closer there are some striking similarities, including the struggles of native peoples in the Amazon and First Nations in Canada with regard to dealing with the onslaught of development in and around their traditional lands.

Jeff, our senior scientist, recently spent a week in Spain for the 10th World Wilderness Congress (WILD10). There he met an interesting person with a lot to share about the struggles of the Kayapó people of the Amazon in dealing with widespread development immediately surrounding their traditional lands. Having worked on the Canadian boreal forest some time, Jeff found striking parallels between their struggles and those of their Canadian First Nation counterparts.

He recently wrote about these similarities on Huffington Post. It’s definitely worth the read:

Of Kangaroos and Caribou

Canada and Australia have some of the largest untouched landscapes left on Earth.
Licensed under Creative Commons 2.5 Attribution. Copyright 2008: Trustees of Columbia University.

As the map above shows (click for larger version), Canada and Australia have some of the largest expanses of intact and undisturbed wilderness left on the planet. They are also leading the way on some very innovating approaches to conservation, with indigenous peoples and communities at the forefront in both instances.

Our very own Dr. Jeff Wells recently published a comparative look into both nations and what is allowing them to succeed in protecting large portions of these pristine landscapes. Check out his latest in National Geographic. Here’s an excerpt:

At first glance, Australia and Canada could not be more different. Separated by more than 7,500 miles (12,000 km), one country known for its hot, dry lands and kangaroos and the other for its cold, wet forests and caribou.

But at a symposium at the International Congress for Conservation Biology last July, which I co-chaired with my colleague Barry Traill, who directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ conservation work in Australia, presenters explored some interesting similarities and new ideas in conservation approaches between Australia’s Outback region and Canada’s Boreal Forest region.

And here’s the link to the full article: