Seabirds of the Boreal?

Caspian Terns in Maine
Credit: Mike Fahay

A comical looking bird the size of a small gull with a black cap, gray back and a bill that looked like a carrot was spotted stopping off on a beach in mid-coast Maine last week on its way south. Staying close by its side and making regularly whistley-squawky begging sounds was its youngster that it had raised this summer and was now following its parent on a journey thousands of miles long. The bird was a Caspian Tern, a bird that has been one of my favorites ever since my days at Cornell University in upstate New York where they are a regular migrant coming and going from a large nesting colony on Little Galloo Island in the eastern end of Lake Ontario. If I was to bet, though, I would guess that the parent and young pair that stopped in Maine last week had come from a nesting colony on the shores of the boreal forest ecoregion. There are or have been colonies of Caspian Terns in Quebec along the North Shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, on the island of Newfoundland and some small probable colonies in Labrador and these birds very likely came from one of those colonies.

The boreal forest of North America
Credit: Global Forest Watch Canada

Caspian Terns are just one example of a particular group of birds that most birders would not think of as “boreal birds” but the boreal forest ecoregion is actually an important breeding ground for many birds that are sometimes called colonial waterbirds, seabirds, or marine-dependent birds. This includes a few birds that are truly found only in marine environments—birds like Great Cormorants, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Razorbills, Atlantic Puffins, and murres—that nest along the boreal coasts of Quebec, Newfound and Labrador. But more eye-opening are the numbers of certain species that people tend to think of as found only or mainly in marine waters. The list of these is impressive.

Borrowed from Cornell’s All About Birds website

Another look at the breeding range of the Caspian Tern, for example, shows that there are large colonies in the boreal from western Ontario through Manitoba and northern Alberta all the way up to Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories (where incidentally I remember excitedly pointing one out some years ago in the Old Town section of Yellowknife as it flew over the heads of birding legends Pete Dunne and Scott Weidensaul who were deeply engrossed in conversation until startled by my shouting).

Borrowed from Cornell’s All About Birds website

Birders regularly make trips to coastal islands of Canada and the northeastern U.S. to see Common, and especially, Arctic Terns during the summer months and so think of those species as “seabirds.” A glance at a range map however will show that Common Terns nest extensively in small colonies in lakes across the southern part of the boreal forest ecoregion while Arctic Terns do so across the northern part. Both species are famous for their incredible migrations, the Common Tern wintering in southern South America and the Arctic Tern making a mind-blowing circuit to the sub-Antarctic seas for the northern winter before migrating north up the African and European coasts and across the north Atlantic to return to nest. It is possible to see both species in a place like Yellowknife.

I made a short video of an Arctic Tern feeding along the shore of Great Slave Lake in Yellowknife a few years ago that you can see here:

To the layperson any gull is a “sea-gull” even if they see it far from the sea. And gulls do occur far from our coastlines. In fact over 75% of the North American breeding range of Herring Gulls and Bonaparte’s Gulls is found within the boreal forest ecoregion. Both species use the millions of lakes spread across the region that make it the most water-rich in the world. Herring Gulls nest in colonies on treeless islands in these lakes. Last year I came across a small colony on an island on Aikens Lake within Manitoba’s Pimachiowin Aki propsed World Heritage site. Bonaparte’s Gulls have the fascinating life history strategy of nesting in trees along the water’s edge, apparently often using old nests of other birds as platforms. A few summers ago when I was on my canoe expedition with Eddie Nickens in northern Ontario, Bonaparte’s Gulls were regular including right in front of the Wilderness North lodge on Miminiska Lake. Mew Gulls and Franklin’s Gull also have major portions of their breeding range within the boreal forest ecoregion.

Herring Gulls on Aikens Lake in Manitoba
Credit: Jeff Wells

One of the big surprises for me when I first started learning about birds of the boreal was that White Pelicans were found across a wide swath of the region from western Ontario across the Prairie Provinces and up into the Northwest Territories. It is always a little startling when flying over a remote area of boreal lakes or rivers to look down and see a huge white bird with black wingtips slowly flapping over the water. On the opposite extreme of the plumage coloration spectrum, the all-black colored Double-crested Cormorant is also a common bird in many parts of the boreal with more than 25% of its breeding range found in the region.

Even some species that typically require long offshore ocean boat trips in order to see, have parts of their breeding range in the boreal forest ecoregion. Both the Long-tailed and Parasitic Jaegers—hawk-like, predatory seabirds—have breeding ranges that extend south from the Arctic into northern parts of the boreal. Scott Wiedensaul, Linda Dunne and I had the thrilling experience of watching a Parasitic Jaeger chase a sandpiper almost down to our feet as we watched from the shore of Great Bear Lake in Deline in the Northwest Territories one August morning.

During the winter along both Pacific and Atlantic shores of southern Canada and the U.S., there is a regular contingent of waterbirds that are wholly or largely dependent on marine environments. This includes the loons—both Pacific Loon and Common Loon have more than half of their total breeding range within the boreal—and grebes. The stocky Red-necked Grebe is particularly boreal dependent with more than 75% of its range within the boreal and is a common and noisy summer bird in marshy areas including around Yellowknife where I made a short video of one. The tiny Horned Grebe, another common winter sight along both coasts, has over 50% of its breeding range in the boreal.

Red-necked Grebe calls near Yellowknife, NWT:

A few weeks ago I watched a small flock of White-winged Scoters fly by from a vantage point looking out over the ocean near Campobello, New Brunswick. Although I was surprised to see them this early in the season, White-winged Scoters and their two sibling species the Surf and Black Scoters, are one of the regular and enjoyable birds of winter along the coasts of southern Canada and the U.S. In all three species, virtually the entire breeding range occurs only within the boreal.

I hope I haven’t completely smashed all your expectations and understanding of what “seabirds” really are or where they are going to and from. Instead I hope that your appreciation will have increased for the wonderful, mysterious and complex lives of these beautiful birds that can so easily shift from being denizens of the remote freshwater lakes and other wetland habitats dotted across the boreal of Canada and Alaska to being citizens of the salty ocean waves across the hemisphere.

And we haven’t even talked about the shorebirds….


Here are a few more videos of common boreal-breeders I’ve come across in Maine:

Common Loon:

Bonaparte’s Gull:

Rural Birding, Ontario Style

Kevin Shackleton, Vice President of Ontario Nature, recently visited the remote and rugged region around Fort Severn, Ontario, the most northern community in the province as a part of his Big Year. Although few trees exist in this northern boreal forest region, it’s a great place to see many waterfowl and shorebirds. It’s also adjacent to the largest single block of intact forest left on earth. Here’s his report from the trip:

Credit: Google Maps

Dr. Hart Brasche and I thought we would try our luck in a relatively un-birded part of the province as I sought more species for my big year. The range map indicated the presence of Willow Ptarmigan and our guide did agree that they could be found and a local couple told us they had seen them on August 23, but we were unsuccessful in our searches in that area north of the Fort Severn Airport along one of the many ridges parallel to the shores of the bay but well inland from it on August 24. We also sought them on the east bank of the Severn River near an old goose hunting camp in the mid-afternoon of August 23 without success.

Fort Severn was started as a fur trading post by the Hudson’s Bay Company in the late 17th Century. As such it is one of the oldest settlements in Ontario. One local put the population at about 300 with half of them employed with various government agencies and businesses. There is a reasonable road network through the village out to the airport and to the shores of Hudson Bay. The area rests on glacial sand and gravel deposits so there is no shortage of road building material.  One of the key economic activities is the hunting of Lesser Snow Geese in the spring and fall.

Part of the road network leading out of Fort Severn
Credit: Kevin Shackleton

For the last 5 years there have been no American goose hunters for the fall hunt, likely as a result of the C$ reaching near parity with the US$ in 2007 and the financial crisis which was full blown in 2008 and has not really subsided. I mention this as our guide, Tommy Miles and his brother Tim would like to develop a new income stream guiding birders to the birds of the boreal forest.

One moves about by ATV and aluminum boat. There was a lot of rain earlier this year and again before we arrived on August 21 so we could not cross one of the swollen rivers to the second camp we were supposed to visit. One needs wellingtons in case one has to get off the ATV to push it out of the many boggy areas that need to be crossed to move from one viewing area to the next. We spent 3 days in Goose Camp about 5Km from Fort Severn. There is no running water. The cabin was heated by a wood stove.  Cooking was on a propane gas range and we brought our own food.

We were supposed to arrive on the 20th, but low cloud meant the pilot could not line up the runway in time for landing so we had an unscheduled night in Sioux Lookout. Our next flights, in and out, were uneventful.

What did we see?

-August 21 late afternoon:

We walked along the west bank of the Severn and saw numerous Sandhill Cranes. There were many ducks in the river, most were Common Goldeneye, but we had one White-winged Scoter, Mallards, Black Ducks, Lesser Scaup and Red-breasted Mergansers. Most of the Cree do not like the taste of duck preferring the spring Snow Geese. We saw both American Kestrel and Merlin in the area.

-August 21 evening:

Many shorebirds on the west bank of the Severn at its mouth, Black-bellied Plovers, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Semipalmated Plovers and many peeps. Snow Geese flew in skeins west along the coast or landed on the grass. Bald Eagles abound! Northern Harriers are plentiful.

-August 22 morning, Owen Miles as guide:

We drove our ATVS into the boggy area northeast of town toward the Pepwatin River. We found 33 Whimbrel, 15 American Golden Plover, Black-bellied Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, the dark race of Savannah Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, American Robin, Boreal Chickadee and Gray Jay.

Bogged down
Credit: Kevin Shackleton

Juvenile American Golden Plover
Credit: Kevin Shackleton

-August 22 afternoon, Tommy Miles as guide:

We took an aluminium boat along the west channel of the Severn out to the west tip of Partridge Island, the largest island in the Severn tidal delta. We found many Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Black-bellied Plovers, a late Arctic Tern and a Glaucous Gull with a flock of Herring Gulls. Tommy also took us to a small sandbar at the mouth of the river where we found about 100 Red Knots, roughly half adults, and 40 Sanderlings and 2 Ruddy Turnstones in winter plumage.

-August 23 morning to mid-afternoon with Tim Miles as our guide:

We left from the village and proceeded up the east channel of the Severn making four stops. The first one on the east bank of the river produced Canada Geese and Sandhill Cranes and our only Spotted Sandpiper in the area. Our second, on the east side of Partridge Island was a shorebird mecca. We had many Least Sandpipers, Pectoral Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers and a flock of 8 Hudsonian Godwits. These all allowed for relatively close viewing. Our third stop was at a gravel shore on the east bank where we found another 25 Hudsonian Godwits. Our fourth stop was again on the east shore at an abandoned goose hunting camp. It was very warm by this time. We found a large mixed flock of Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins. Boreal Chickadees and Gray Jays were also present as was our lone Green-winged Teal for the trip.

Pectoral Sandpipers
Credit: Kevin Shackleton

Short-billed Dowitcher
Credit: Kevin Shackleton

-August 24 morning, Tommy and Owen Miles as guides:

We followed the road north past the airport in search of Willow Ptarmigan as mentioned earlier. I believe we were too late in the morning for them. We did see Gray Jay, Black-backed Woodpecker, Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls and heard a Blackpoll Warbler.

We had 57 species in total.

Wasaya Air flies between many of the northern communities. The flight from Thunder Bay via Sioux Lookout cost $900. There is a hotel in Fort Severn which charges $235 a night. I can’t speak to the quality. There is a Northern Store there and prices are about double here in the south. Three 500ml bottles of pop were almost $15.00.

The locals are not birders. We left our field guides in hopes that they might be able to say where we or the next birders to visit might find more species. I hope to return in the not too distant future.

Kevin Shackleton
Vice President, Ontario Nature

Houston: The Whimbrel has Landed

Just a quick update that Pingo has in fact landed in Brazil after the long, multi-day migration beginning in Maritime Canada. There was some guessing as to whether Pingo would end up in Brazil or the neighboring French Guiana. Pingo had to navigate around Tropical Storm Isaac (better illustrated with this map from the previous update). You can get more details about Pingo’s route getting here on our last blog.

Here’s where Pingo finally landed:

Credit: Center for Conservation Biology

Let’s hope Pingo finds some good beach/wetland habitat with plenty of food to stock back up after that long, long flight!

Pingo Shows Poise

In our last post we outlined the success of the terrific Whimbrel satellite tracking program led by the Center for Conservation Biology and partners. It has led to all sorts of new information about Whimbrels and their migration. Of particular note was the recent discovery of a new migration route being used by several Whimbrels that juts way further out over the Atlantic than was previously known.

Just today we got a nice update from Fletcher Smith, a research biologist from the Center for Conservation Biology and one of the leading members of the tracking program:

“Pingo the Whimbrel has skirted around Tropical Storm Isaac and is likely headed for either French Guiana or Brazil (see attached map). As of yesterday at 11pm Eastern the bird was 300 miles from landfall. The whimbrel was averaging 35mph before hitting the storm, and averaged 25mph after, so the storm only had a minor effect on the flight speed and bearing.”

Pingo’s recent migration path (click to enlarge)
Credit: Center for Conservation Biology

Pingo appears to have taken a similar route as the 3 Whimbrels we documented in the previous post. Pingo, however, had the unpleasant task of navigating around the rapidly-developing Tropical Storm Isaac. It appears Pingo has made it through with a breeze (pun intended) – only losing an average of 10 miles/hour upon circumventing the storm.

Fletcher also indicated that Pingo appeared to be headed toward the French Guiana/Brazil border – we should get another update as to Pingo’s exact whereabouts tomorrow. Let’s hope Pingo finds a nice piece of suitable habitat upon landing to spend the winter and enjoys the warmer winter down there. I know many of us in colder winter climes would gladly swap locations come winter!

Whimbrels Amaze Us Yet Again

Until recently, Whimbrels have proved to be somewhat of a mystery to scientists. Noting a decline among the long-distant migrants, which typically breed up in arctic Canada, scientists set out to better understand the everyday life of a Whimbrel and what might be leading to their decline.

Credit: James Robinson

Part of the difficulty in understanding Whimbrel behavior was simply the remoteness and wide-ranging nature of their geography. Their typical summer breeding grounds in the Mackenzie River Delta and Hudson Bay coastline in northern Canada are not close to many people, much less research facilities. And although some do winter along the coastlines of the United States, the majority head down to the tropical coastlines of the Caribbean and South America. The East Coast of the US and Canadian Maritmes, has been known as a stopping ground for some time. But where they went after that was less known.

This prompted a satellite tagging study in which some birds were fitted with small transmitters, allowing scientists to follow their movements.  Led by the Center for Conservation Biology along with numerous partners, the program officially launched in 2008.

This great study has helped us to understand much more about Whimbrels and how they migrate (and we’ve blogged several updates throughout the process). Hope has lived up to her name, avoiding several tropical storms while successfully flying back and forth between northern Canada and her wintering grounds on St. Croix for three straight years since being tagged in 2009. She even dabbled in acting, playing lead role in a short film about the program.

Machi and Goshen were not so fortunate, as both were killed by hunters on the island of Guadaloupe in fall of 2011. Although the shootings were legal according to local laws, it prompted a significant global response and outcry, leading to a renewed pressure to better regulate bird hunting in the Caribbean.

Although the program is still relatively new, much has been learned about Whimbrel migrations and where they might be sensitive to issues that could impact their survival.

Thanks to the continuance of the study we gained even more vital information this past week. Three Whimbrels were tagged this summer up in the Mackenzie River Delta of Canada (others had previously been being tagged on stopover locations in the US). Mackenzie, Akpik and Taglu surprised everyone not when they stopped in eastern Canada to fuel up for the big trip south, but when they jutted way out over the open Atlantic on a non-stop flight all the way to the eastern coast of South America.

Fall 2012 migration routes of the three new tagged Whimbrels
Credit: Center for Conservation Biology

Whimbrels previously tracked in the program had stuck much closer to North America, often stopping in places like Virginia and the Caribbean before finding their eventual winter home. This new route began in Atlantic Canada and strayed way out over the heart of the Atlantic. This route was known to be used by several sea birds, which can roost and rest by landing on the open sea, and some famously long-distance non-stop migrant shorebirds like American Golden Plovers and the now probably extinct Eskimo Curlew—a smaller cousin of the Whimbrel. But this was the first documented use of this route by a Whimbrel. The individual with the longest route actually flew for what must have been an exhausting six straight days (!) without stopping for a total of 4,355 miles (7,000 kilometres).

It’s no wonder they stopped to build up energy and fat reserves for two weeks prior at stopover habitat in eastern Canada before embarking on this marathon journey.

Each year it seems like we learn something completely new about Whimbrels through this program. Let’s clink our glasses to the success they’ve had and the success we hope they continue to have!

Manitoba’s Abundance of Opportunity

The following is a guest post from Alan Young of the Canadian Boreal Initiative (CBI). CBI brings together diverse partners to create new solutions for boreal forest conservation and works as a catalyst supporting on-the-ground efforts across the boreal. Hope you enjoy the read.

Manitoba’s boreal is at the heart of the declining Bay-Breasted Warbler’s range
Credit: Jeff Wells

Think you’ve been seeing fewer songbirds in your back yard over the past couple years? Chances are you’re not alone. A recent landmark report on the state of Canada’s bird populations found that 44 percent of Canada’s bird species are in decline, 66 of which are listed as Endangered, Threatened or of Special Concern.

As some have pointed out, it’s not all doom-and-gloom. Two major bird groups, waterfowl and raptors, have both increased over the past forty years. This is largely due to the success of international wetland conservation and restoration efforts and, in the case of raptors, successful legislative efforts to ban harmful chemicals such as DDT.

However, there is no denying that unless we address the two main threats to Canada’s birds—habitat degradation and climate change—we are unlikely to see this concerning trend cease.

Manitoba is in a great position to address both of these issues. With a relatively small population and a plethora of land and resources, Manitoba has the capital and space to invest in renewable energy projects helping to mitigate the production of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. This abundance of land, at least to the north in the boreal forest, is also highly intact. In fact, Manitoba shares with Ontario the single largest intact stretch of forest left on earth. So to say that Manitoba possesses abundant opportunities for large-scale bird conservation would be an understatement.

While curbing climate change will surely take an international effort, protecting important bird habitat from further degradation is entirely within Manitoba’s control. And there’s no better place to start than the boreal forest.

Intact boreal forest in northern Manitoba
Credit: Jeff Wells

Eighty percent of Manitoba’s 467 000 km² boreal forest is still in relatively pristine condition. No large clear-cuts, no dams, no habitat-bisecting roads. Between 100 to 300 million birds breed there in the summer, and countless millions more stop to feed and rest along their migratory routes to and from habitat further north. It’s also home to the iconic yet threatened woodland caribou and nearly 50 aboriginal communities, some of which still heavily rely on traditional forms of sustenance. And with 19 billion tonnes of carbon stored in our forest—equivalent to 94 years of Canada’s annual carbon emissions—it is safe to say that not just birds benefit from boreal conservation.

The course Manitoba appears to have set with its actions and published intentions indicates recognition of this important opportunity and of a responsibility to steward the boreal wisely. Manitoba has rightfully placed the creation of the Pimachiowin Aki proposed World Heritage Site as a high priority. I have visited the vast and lush region and can say I’ve seen few places and cultures as worthy of protection.

I read Manitoba’s new draft green plan with interest, and although it lacked specifics in terms of how it plans to sustainably manage and protect the boreal, its language and commitment is encouraging. With these areas in play, I see no reason to believe Manitoba cannot one day boast of being a world leader in boreal conservation and appropriate development.

Olive-sided Flycatcher in northern Manitoba
Credit: Jeff Wells

These efforts are all about thinking long-term: once a forest is cleared, it remains altered forever.

One-hundred years from now, will we be the generation remembered as the first to truly address our ever-expanding footprint on nature? Or will we be remembered as the ones who knew all too well of the consequences and yet stood idly by?

Manitoba has a real, concrete opportunity to be remembered by the former rather than the latter. If it is, we can remain confident there will still be a few birds left for our future generations to enjoy.

Breakthrough in Boreal Agreement

Just over two years ago the unthinkable happened. After decades of disputes and fighting over logging in pristine parts of Canada’s boreal forest, environmentalists and forest companies finally decided to talk to each other directly about their concerns rather than by exchanging sound bites through the media.

Log pile in Canada’s boreal forest
Credit: Garth Lenz

Although it took several years to negotiate the final language, the result was the world-changing Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement (CBFA), essentially a truce between the traditionally sparring sides which would see forest companies improve sustainable practices and avoid logging in increasingly-declining Woodland Caribou habitat in exchange for environmental groups abandoning their “Do Not Buy” campaigns, which had targeted suppliers and consumers to avoid purchasing unsustainable forest and paper products from the Canadian boreal.

The size of land affected was equally staggering: 72 million hectares (178 million acres) of forest held to new sustainability standards of which 29 hectares (72 million acres) of caribou habitat would be temporarily protected with the goal of eventually creating permanently protected areas in those regions.

Map of caribou harvest deferrals and sustainable management areas
Credit: Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement

As impressive and celebrated as this feat was, the hard work had actually just begun.

The forest companies and environmental groups that signed the CBFA only constituted two of the four parties needed on board for this vision to fall into place. Provincial governments, which manage public lands and tenures, and regional communities and governments (particularly Aboriginal) would both be needed to be on board before any permanent changes could take place under the Agreement.

The CBFA had highlighted several pilot areas at its conception with which to focus and explore the nitty-gritty, on-the-ground details of implementing the broad vision of the agreement. The idea was that if the CBFA model could be successful in a few targeted regions of the Canadian boreal it would ideally work elsewhere. Things moved along slowly behind the scenes over the next year or so and the CBFA largely fell out of the spotlight.

Pressure to create some good news intensified earlier this year, though, when several of the participating environmental groups went to the media to express their frustration at the lack of progress going forward. Many of the benchmarks outlined in the Agreement had yet to be met and few of them had been met on time according to the original timeline.

But through it all a dedicated group of people continued working on a pilot project in Ontario and in July, CBFA representatives (which included timber titans Tembec and Resolute Forest along with environmental groups such as the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society) announced that they had reached a final agreement that had the support of the local community and the regional First Nation. The provincial government expressed support but still has to review the plan and decide if it will make it official.

Boreal forest in northern Ontario
Credit: Jeff Wells

The crown jewel of this leap forward is the suspension of all logging in 835,000 hectares (2.1 million acres – roughly the size of Yellowstone National Park) of caribou habitat in the Abitibi River forest region of northeastern Ontario. More than 2 million hectares (5 million acres) of additional forest will be managed more sustainably throughout the region.

This represented the single largest victory for the CBFA since the opening announcement. Getting the environmental groups and industry on the same page had proven possible, albeit not easy. Successfully integrating the provincial government and regionally-affected Aboriginal governments into the final planning phase was more of an unknown. At least until now.

With this breakthrough, though, we now know what is possible. There are many other projects going on elsewhere in Canada under the CBFA, and all face their own unique set of issues and challenges. It will be far from easy, but this recent deal should provide some momentum for those frustrated by the lack of progress on the ground.

It’s been somewhat of a rollercoaster throughout this whole process, with ups and downs at nearly every turn. This summer is undoubtedly a high, particularly in Ontario. May it be a sign of many more to come.

Blue Boreal of Manitoba

A few weeks ago Chris Smith of Ducks Unlimited Canada went out on a boreal adventure to northwestern Manitoba along with some of our other campaign friends. Along the way, they passed over some beautiful and intact boreal forest, including many lakes and rivers. Given Canada’s boreal is the largest source of unfrozen freshwater on earth this shouldn’t be too surprising, but it made for some great scenery nonetheless.

They were even able to get a little fishing in (see last picture)!

Credit: Chris Smith

Credit: Chris Smith

Credit: Chris Smith

Credit: Chris Smith

Credit: Chris Smith

State of Canada’s Birds Report Shows Need for International Cooperation

American Black Duck.
Credit: Jeff Nadler

Yesterday several prominent conservation and wildlife organizations published The State of Canada’s Birds, a comprehensive assessment of population fluxes among birds within each major ecoregion of Canada. Released by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative (NABCI-Canada), under the leadership of Environment Canada, Bird Studies Canada, Ducks Unlimited Canada, Nature Canada, the Nature Conservancy of Canada and Wildlife Habitat Canada, the report compiled 40 years worth of counts, trends and statistics on Canada’s bird populations.

The findings should come as no surprise. Overall, Canadian birds are in decline by an average of 12 percent. This steady decline can be mostly attributed to two threats: habitat loss and degradation (including less visible changes like increases in toxins in habitats) and the gradual effects of climate change.

Of course the overall average is not indicative of every bird. Some birds, particularly waterfowl and raptors, have seen promising increases as a whole over the past few decades. The report notes that successful international waterfowl management programs and wetland restoration efforts throughout North America have proven to be a huge boost for waterfowl, while raptors have benefitted from laws prohibiting toxic pesticides like DDT, which just a few decades ago was devastating many raptors and fish-eating birds and their young.

Aerial insectivores, including the Olive-sided Flycatcher, are struggling.
Credit: Jeff Nadler

On the flip side, many birds are not doing so well. Aerial insectivores, such as swallows and flycatchers, along with grassland birds and shorebirds have fared far more poorly. The reasons behind such declines vary by individual species, however for many species climate change is likely making an impact. Bird migrations are carefully timed with the seasons and earlier onset of warm temperatures in spring spurs insect blooms to happen earlier. When long-distance migrant birds arrive at their breeding grounds they may have already missed the peak of insect abundance that is so important for feeding newly hatched young.

Of birds that regularly occur and breed in the boreal forest—our particular area of focus—there are a number of species of particular concern. The Canada Warbler, Oliver-sided Flycatcher, and Common Nighthawk (all major boreal breeding species) are all listed as Threatened under Canada’s Species at Rsk Act. While Rusty Blackbird, Yellow Rail, and eastern populations of Harlequin Duck and Barrow’s Goldeneye are listed as Special Concern. In the western boreal region, Lesser Scaup and White-winged Scoters have seen major declines.

Much of the Canada Warbler’s southern range has been degraded.
Credit: Boreal Songbird Initiative

If anything, the story this report paints is that the double-edged sword of habitat loss and degradation and climate change is proving to be too much for many birds. Sixty-six of Canada’s 451 regularly occurring native species are listed as Endangered, Threatened or of Special Concern. This number will surely continue to rise unless action is taken soon.

It also tells us that a dramatic increase in international cooperation is needed. Migratory birds know no political boundaries. They are not asked to stop and show their visas when crossing provincial or international lines. Whether it’s a Whimbrel searching for healthy and safe habitat in the Caribbean or a duck diving into toxic waters as a result of the BP oil spill (which we also covered in a previous post), what happens outside of Canada affects Canada’s birds. Conversely, what happens to Canadian habitat affects birds that migrate down into the United States and as far as the southern tip of South America.

Identifying and protecting crucial breeding, stopover and wintering habitat across the Americas (such as what Birdlife International’s successful Important Bird Areas Program is doing) should be a priority for governments throughout the summer, winter, and migratory ranges of our birds.

Quebec’s ‘Plan Nord’ would protect millions of acres of bird habitat.
Credit: Garth Lenz

There are some silver linings. The success of efforts such as the North American Waterfowl Management Plan and the laws banning toxic chemicals such as DDT have shown that when policies and programs are led by science and partisan politics are put aside, amazing things can happen. In Canada there are a host of world-changing large conservation initiatives currently hanging in the balance. The governments of Ontario and Quebec have both pledged to protect at least half of their northern boreal regions – this would put a staggering 200 million acres (800,000 km2) off limits to development if done the right way and home to literally hundreds of millions of breeding birds. Manitoba is at the forefront of creating a large UNESCO World Heritage Site on the east side of Lake Winnipeg—vital breeding grounds for threatened birds including the Canada Warbler and Olive-sided Flycatcher and important migratory stopover habitat for arctic, tundra and wetland-dependent birds that breed further north. These efforts, if implemented with real, long-lasting habitat protection provisions will help ensure that billions of birds will have the best possible chances of adapting to the challenges imposed by climate change as well as those that occur when they leave the boreal “bird nursery.”  These are the kinds of real, lasting conservation actions that could make it likely that future “state of the birds” reports will be packed with good news!

Note: you also might be interested in looking at our 2011 report Birds at Risk: The Importance of Canada’s Boreal Wetlands and Waterways, which chronicled the importance of Canada’s surface freshwater for birds and some of the aquatic threats facing them.