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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Greetings all! After a brief hiatus for the latter part of the summer, we’re excited to say that we’re jumping back into action and look forward to continuing to share tidbits and stories about the boreal forest and the billions of migratory birds that breed there each summer.
Big? Absolutely. Bold? Perhaps. But this is what the most up-to-date science is confirming if we want to preserve the many great species in the boreal for generations to come in light of expanding industrial development and the worsening of impacts from climate change.
We were excited to see that the report received considerable notice from media, industry, government, and everyday folks like me and you. Here are a few of the articles:
BirdLife International just announced its new list of the world’s most endangered birds and the Whooping Crane is on that list. The fact that there are still any Whooping Cranes on the planet is at least partly because a portion of their original widespread population nested in a part of the still intact boreal forest—in this case in Wood Buffalo National Park. When Wood Buffalo was established as a national park in 1922 the nesting grounds of the remaining Whooping Cranes that wintered on the coast of Texas were unknown. The park was established to save another endangered species—some of the last remaining woodland-inhabiting bison or buffalo in North America. It was not until more than 20 years later—in 1954– that Whooping Cranes were conclusively sighted in the park and confirmed as breeders. Unfortunately at that time there were only about 30 Whooping Cranes left in existence. Fortunately, focused conservation work has brought the species back from the brink so that there are over 500 alive now though only about 250-300 of those are in the original wild, migratory population which nests in Wood Buffalo (others are in experimentally released populations or in captive populations – read more about them here in my book Birder’s Conservation Handbook.
Unfortunately, not only are populations of Whooping Cranes very vulnerable given their small total numbers, BirdLife International reported that one in eight bird species is endangered or vulnerable. Some of these may already be extinct. The Eskimo Curlew is one of these. There are no confirmed sightings since a bird was killed in Barbados in 1963 (more from its chapter in my Handbook). The only known nesting areas include part of the Copper River watershed, some of which is in or near some of the new diamond mining ventures in the Northwest Territories.
A new book by Princeton Press, The World’s Rarest Birds, highlights these and 588 other species of endangered birds from across the world. The authors painstakingly searched to obtain photographs, in part through an international photography competition, to try to get photographic images of all of the 590 species discussed in the book. They succeeded for all but 75 species, some of which have not been seen for decades, and for those pulled in artist Tomasz Cofta to illustrate them. Along with a pithy account of the status of each species with a map and an estimate of its population size, the book also has insightful analysis of the issues impacting bird populations and geographic and taxonomic analysis of how bird populations are faring. An interesting and sobering fact that jumped out at me was how many shorebird species that breed in parts of the Siberian boreal forest region are now highly endangered.
Let’s hope that we can keep working in Canada’s Boreal Forest to show how proactive conservation can ensure that we don’t add any more of our bird species to the next edition of BirdLife’s list of globally endangered species.
Churchill is an island in many ways. It is accessible by a single rail line and by air and, for a few months in summer, by boat. It has about 60 kilometers of roads, most of them unpaved. So birding the area usually means visiting many of the same places multiple times. For our final day and half at Churchill, we did just that. Like many visitors to Churchill we were drawn every morning and one evening to Cape Merry and several Churchill River overlooks near the massive grain elevators. It was here where we finally witnessed close-up views of two Beluga whales as they repeatedly surfaced with their white bulging foreheads. It was here where we marveled at flocks of brightly colored Ruddy Turnstones on floating ice sheets—had they just flown up from Delaware Bay on their way to High Arctic breeding grounds.
Ruddy Turnstones Credit: Jeff Wells
Peering out from the old fort at Cape Merry we were amused by the antics of Ringed Seals as they jumped partly out of the water and splashed around. Every time we stopped by Cape Merry at any time of day and even when the wind was howling, a male American Pipit was there exuberantly belting out his repetitive song as he would rise up into the air in a breeding display flight. A pair of dangerous-looking Parasitic Jaegers chased around the Arctic Terns whenever one came up with a small fish. Common Eiders huddled around the shore and fought for space on small ice floes in front us—hard to believe that this particular subspecies survives the long dark winters on Hudson Bay by finding open leads in the vast ice sheets where they can dive for shellfish.
Common Eiders Credit: Jeff Wells
Goose Creek Road was another favorite spot for us to bird multiple times. One of the group’s most enjoyable stops was at Bill’s Up the Creek bed-and-breakfast. Bill is a wonderful older gentleman who left his native New Jersey years ago for Churchill and apparently never looked back. His log cabin style house is surrounded with bird feeders and the yard rings with bird song and bird activity. As we arrived a male Rusty Blackbird came flying in with food in his bill to feed nestlings in a spruce-top nest (just as an aside, we saw at least four separate Rusty Blackbirds carrying food during the trip). Common Redpolls called and chased each other around the house and fed on seeds Bill had spread under a nearby shed. But the highlight was the incredibly tame male Pine Grosbeak that flew in and landed on a platform feeder about four feet in front of us. It was almost too close to focus the binoculars on! Everyone soaked in views of its beautiful rosy plumage. Before we left, Bill regaled us with stories including about how he slept through the time when a Polar Bear broke in and ransacked his kitchen.
At Bill’s Credit: Jeff Wells
Pine Grosbeak Credit: Jeff Wells
An important stop for me was the Old Dene Village on Goose Creek Road. After reading the incredibly difficult and powerful story of the forced relocation of the Sayisi Dene to Churchill in 1955 in the book Night Spirits by Ila Bussidor and Ustun Bilgen-Reinart (University of Manitoba Press, 2000), it was especially meaningful to visit the site where much of the story took place. Tragically, over a third of the community died over a 30-40 year period. Finally, community leaders brought the remaining people back to establish a new community within their traditional lands far from Churchill. It was fitting of a story of rebirth that the area around the monument to the Old Dene Village was teeming with singing birds including, White-crowned, White-throated, Lincoln’s, and Fox Sparrows and even a rare (for Churchill) singing Clay-colored Sparrow.
Sayisi Dene Memorial Credit: Jeff Wells
Further on down Goose Creek Road we had more incredible birding. Just before the Goose Creek Bridge we watched and listened to the beautiful flutey song of a Gray-cheeked Thrush. In the marshy expanses beyond the tour we scanned through the Bonaparte’s Gulls and finally spotted the distinctive black underwings of a flying Little Gull—one of the sought-after species by many North American birders.
Little Gull Credit: Jeff Wells
After breakfast on our final day in Churchill we had the good fortune to have the Mayor of Churchill, Michael Spence, stop by and chat with our group. He described the days when he was a kid when Churchill was bustling with thousands of people from the U.S. and Canadian military bases and rocket launch facilities. He talked about how the community coped with the changing economic conditions when the bases closed and the population declined to its current level of around 1,000 permanent residents. Churchill has worked hard to maintain a positive quality of life for its residents and is proud of its large center which includes a school, hospital, hockey rink, pool, bowling alley, gym, and town offices all under one roof! Along with its ecotourism economy based largely around tours in the late fall and early winter to see Polar Bears, Churchill is also a key staging area for communities further north and for transportation of equipment for mining exploration and development further north.
Later that day we flew back to Winnipeg on one of Calm Air’s new and very comfortable small jets, enjoying freshly baked cookies, as we viewed the incredible boreal landscape of northern Manitoba.
In our nine days in Manitoba we had just sampled a small taste of the ecological riches of this vast province that is nearly as large as Texas (649,950 square kilometers/250,900 sq mi). It’s easy to forget that it is over 600 miles (1000 km) from Winnipeg north to Churchill! Manitoba also has some of the largest blocks of unfragmented boreal habitat in Canada—115 million acres (467,000 km2) of it supporting an estimated 100-300 million breeding birds. We had tallied 169 species in our Manitoba journey and we were happy. But we also left knowing that there is much more conservation work to be done in Manitoba and fortunately there are many good people hard at work to see it gets done. Our Audubon friends are among those who will be supporting and watching because the birds of Manitoba are also the birds of their own backyards, wetlands, parks, and preserves.
Here are a few audio clips I was able to record during this leg of the journey:
Thursday dawned bright and warm and we were happy. Today was to be our day to be out all day and make our longest trek on the 60 kilometers of road that are available in Churchill. Paul would take us out on the Nature 1st Tour minibus along the Coast Road and Launch Road to the Northern Studies Centre and on to Twin Lakes to search for the Hawk Owl that Tim Barksdale had seen there a few days before. The restaurant at the Seaport Hotel provided us with box lunches and a big container of coffee and we were on our way. First stop was Paul’s house out toward Bird Cove where we looked across a valley to see a flock of Sandhill Cranes foraging in some old piles of chaff from the wheat granary operation at the harbor.
Purple Saxifrage Credit: Jeff Wells
Bunches of startlingly beautiful Purple Saxifrage that seemed to erupt from the ancient sand dunes were a bonus as was Paul’s tales of the Polar Bears that regularly stop by his house in the late fall and the inadvertent shocks he has received from the electric fencing on his house that are meant to deter the bears. Like all the Churchill residents we met, Paul lives carefully and cautiously with the bears and seems to take it all in stride. He did mention being a bit annoyed when, while they were away on vacation, a bear broke a back window and reached in and took out all the clothes on a rack he could reach from outside. Another bear started trying to sleep on a cushion on the back porch that they had left out for the dogs to use so they had to get rid of the cushions.
One of the funnier happenings on the trip occurred when we stopped to look for Willow Ptarmigan behind the home of one of Paul’s friends and chief guides. After searching around the back yard without luck we were about to get back in the bus when Paul spotted a female at the base of a nearby telephone pole. We feasted on stunning views of the close bird for 10 minutes when she decided to scamper away. Just then we heard the comical nasal calls of a ptarmigan from over our heads and discovered that a male Willow Ptarmigan had been sitting on the cross bars of the telephone pole watching us the whole time!
Willow Ptarmigan Credit: Jeff Wells
We tried again to get in the bus when Paul noticed a distant flock of birds flying in off Hudson Bay. As they got closer we could see the distinctive shapes, flight style and coloration of White Pelicans—an oddity here.
Two dueling male Willow Ptarmigans marched in the open in front of us at the Scout Camp as we had lunch and we spotted a rare-for-Churchill Clay-colored Sparrow nearby. After lunch and an unsuccessful search in the afternoon heat (it reached close to 80 degrees F that day!) for Smith’s Longspur, a pair of Parasitic Jaegers perched on the ground to give us great views through the telescope.
As we trailed back to the bus a Whimbrel suddenly rose from across the tundra, displayed and settled onto the top of small spruce within twenty feet of Winston who had stayed back to take some photos.
Winston and the Whimbrel Credit: Jeff Wells
When we pulled into the impressive Northern Studies Research Centre a little later, Paul pointed out his Nature 1st truck that he had rented to a film crew for housing, believe it or not, a polar bear cub and a grizzly bear cub. When we stepped out we could hear one of the bears making some grunting sounds from within the truck. The bears were tame, apparently trained, ones that were being used in a movie that is to be called Midnight Sun. When we went into the Center for a look around at the gift store and cafeteria, several of the female participants noticed the film’s star, a heart throb from the ER television show, sitting in the lounge checking his email.
Northern Studies Centre Credit: Jeff Wells
Passing by the former rocket launchers (Churchill has some really interesting past history as you can tell), we continued down the rather long, bumpy road to Twin Lakes. Halfway through we heard the stuttering trill of an Orange-crowned Warbler and we stopped to enjoy some great views of it as it hopped around in the tamaracks. The road had been constructed during the rocket launching days following south along a glacial esker ridge that was the only dry land in the sea of low, boggy peatland that makes up much of the Hudson Bay lowlands. Further on the road descends to the flat tundra-peatland in an area that Paul called the Barrens. Here we hit upon the mother-lode of shorebirds with lots of brightly plumaged American Golden-Plovers along with Short-billed Dowitchers, Hudsonian Godwits, Stilt Sandpipers and a few Dunlin sporting their black belly patches.
American Golden-Plover Credit: Jeff Wells
Everyone was hot and tired when we reached the end of the road at Twin Lakes on the edge of a large area that had been the site of forest fire many years ago and was now growing back with a carpet of lime green willow shrubs. We scanned the countless dead tree stubs across the horizon for the telltale silhouette of a Hawk Owl but without success and finally had to give up our search and enjoy views of the vast landscape as we made our way back to town.