29 December 2008

Newest National Refuge a Holiday Present for Pennsylvanians

On December 23rd, the Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Pennsylvania was the newest refuge established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Today is a wonderful day for Cherry Valley, and it marks the perfect holiday present for the residents of Monroe County” said Congressman Kanjorski of Pennsylvania’s District 11. “It is amazing to see such overwhelming grassroots support for an initiative, as I have witnessed with Cherry Valley. It is because of these efforts that I first learned about what a wonderful area Cherry Valley is and they are the reason that I worked to pass legislation calling for a study of Cherry Valley” in the Pocono Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, district 15, also was a sponsor for the legislation to study the area and its potential for a refuge.

“The establishment of the Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refuge is incredibly important for the quality of life in Monroe County,” said Monroe County Commissioner Suzanne McCool. “Congressman Kanjorski has relentlessly worked to push for the creation of this refuge since 2004. Additionally, the many dedicated residents in Monroe County helped bring the issue of Cherry Valley to the forefront and make the refuge a reality.”

“The legislation requires that the Fish and Wildlife Service conduct a study of fish and wildlife habitat and aquatic and terrestrial communities within the area,” according to information on the website of Congressman Paul E. Kanjorski, of Pennsylvania’s 11th district. “Upon completion of the study, the Fish and Wildlife Service must issue a management plan that provides planning for wildlife and habitat restoration, design of access points and trails and creation of permanent exhibits and educational programs throughout the Refuge.”

“The partnership approach to the planning for the Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refuge is a model for future planning efforts,” said Fish and Wildlife Service Director H. Dale Hall, Fish and Wildlife Service Director. “The collaboration of officials from local, state, and federal offices, as well as non-governmental organizations made sure the process was efficient and comprehensive. The strong, grassroots support for the project shows that this habitat is nationally significant and Cherry Valley is the right place for a new national wildlife refuge.”

Findings of the evaluation study indicated numerous biotic features that support establishing a refuge.

“The Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refuge boundary harbors rare ecosystems, several plants and animals protected under the Endangered Species Act, and many more species of concern within the conservation community,” according to findings of the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). “Cherry Creek, at the valley bottom, flows into the Delaware River. Following the creek’s path, Kittatinny Ridge is a major avenue for migrating birds and bats.”

The refuge area includes several Federally endangered or threatened species, as well as a number of plant species endangered in Pannsylvania, according to the Friends of Cherry Valley, that said about 2000 acres have already been protected through land purchases, donations of property, and conservation easements. Eight species of waterfowl of priority concern according to the North American Wetland Conservation Act and 16 bird species of regional concern occur in Cherry Valley, with the Kittatinny Ridge within the refuge a flyway for raptors, with important forests for the Cerulean Warbler and other neotropical song bird species.

“The Service completed the Cherry Valley study in partnership with The Nature Conservancy and many other organizations, including the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, Pennsylvania Game Commission, National Park Service, Monroe County Planning Commission, Monroe County Conservation District, Northampton Community College, East Stroudsburg University and the Pocono Avian Research Center,” according to information on the FWS website.

The completed study, which includes the final environmental assessment, finding of no significant impact and other establishing documents, as well as answers to frequently asked questions regarding establishing national wildlife refuges, can be found at the web page for the northeast region of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“The establishment of the Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refuge will now give conservation-minded landowners the additional option that has been needed to assist them in preserving their land as a legacy for future generations,” according to Debra Schuler, president of the Friends of Cherry Valley. “Cherry Valley is such a unique place! Much of it has remained un-touched, which is why it has the qualities it does. Now we can move forward with protecting the environment, the animals that inhabit it, and its rich history.”

The Nature Conservancy reports, that the FWS “would be authorized to purchase some land outright and protect other acres through voluntary conservation easements, preserving not only habitat for the rare plants and animals, but also the scenic rural landscape of working farms and private homes throughout the valley.”

The new refuge, along the Delaware River near Stroudsburg and Brodheadsville, is only the third national refuge in Pennsylvania, and the first established since 1972 The others’ are the Erie NWR and the John Heinz NWR.

First issued at www.bloggernews.net

22 December 2008

Online Entry to Improve Input of Historic Bird Phenology Details

The North American Bird Phenology Program has added online data entry to allow volunteers to view records of historic bird distribution and input the details into a computer database. The volunteers will be able to view how many records have been transcribed (and of which species and locations) but it will take some time for them to be able to see the information entered. Eventually, our database will also be housed on the National Phenology Network website as well.

This program has approximately six millions records of migration arrival and departure dates from a 90 year span from 1880-1970, according to Jessica Zelt, coordinator for the program, hired as a contractor through IAP Worldwide services. The effort is sponsored by the U.S. Geological Service, and housed at Patuxtent, Maryland.

When the program was underway, more than 3000 volunteer contributors submitted information in a variety of ways, ranging from lists of species and dates, to descriptions and reports with related details on a species occurrence.

“Participants recorded their name, locality and year, along with arrival and departure dates, date of abundance, and if it was a common species to that location,” Zelt said. “Many field report files are also found among the records which include more detailed information including species behavior, habitat and a description of the sighting. The records are cataloged by species and locality, totaling approximately 880 species of birds ranging across North America. There are also a few records from other locations such as South and Central America, and going as far north as Greenland and the Arctic Ocean and as far west as Japan. However, these locations are few and far between.”

Volunteers Lauren Pulz and Derek Smith scanning cards for the phenology program. Picture courtesy of Jessica Zelt.

Since a majority of the information is handwritten, and cannot be recognized and converted by a computer, we rely on volunteers in the BPP office to scan the migration cards and then, with the help of worldwide participants, transcribe this historical data into our database, Zelt said.

“BPP volunteers who come in each and every week to make sure the program is a success are the backbone of this program. They handle, sort, scan and transcribe these records in preparation for scientific analysis.” The BPP has only one paid staff member.

“The cards are sorted by state and species and several species are a high priority due to the existence of comparable collections of recent arrival data (from 1970 to today), including species such as Purple Martins, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, orioles, waterfowl, and the Common Loon.

“The cards will be archived electronically and easily available to future researchers. A program on this scale could not be accomplished without the participation of the public.”

View of the online transcription screen.

Providing web-based entry will improve access for viewing the scanned cards and allow volunteers with internet access to help with computerizing the information. “An open field on the data-entry screen will allow participants to transcribe exactly what is written on the card” as shown in the PDF file, Zelt explained. “An online training process will be provided on the website to walk participants through the process of data entry.

“We are looking forward to engaging volunteers from around the world to participate in this program and get more involved in science and birding. Eventually, we want people to collect the same type of bird data and submitting that information as well. We are also looking forward to producing a publication on the topic of climate change and how it is affecting bird migration times on a national scale.”

Phenology is the scientific study of periodic biological phenomena, and the “information that can be extracted from these records will provide critical information on bird distribution, migration timing and migration pathways and how they are changing,” Zelt explained. “These records hold intrinsic scientific value but also have specific importance in the context of climate change. Shifts in bird arrival times has demographic consequences, as birds arriving earlier may not arrive in conjunction with their peak food resources which could result in high mortality rates.

“Thus far, there has been very little literature published on bird phenology due to the relatively recent focus on the topic and the lack of existing historical data. Currently, there has been more literature produced in Europe than in North America due to their success in documenting and maintaining records on migratory bird arrival dates as well as egg and nest records.”

Sam Droege, who is involved with the project, “made an assessment of the value of these cards in 2003, and provided recommendations for further analyses and recreating a network of new observers,” Zelt said. His findings were published in an article titled “Spring Arrivals of Maryland and Washington, D.C. Birds,” in Maryland Birdlife (volume 59, No. 1-2). The history and description of the bird occurrence data is given in the article, along with a characterization of a small sample of the data from the State of Maryland.

Some initial funding for the BPP was provided by The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and The Wildlife Society to develop the data entry system and analyze the dataset. Partial funding was also received from the USGS Data Rescue Fund in 2008.

Completion of data entry for the project will be entirely dependent on the help of volunteers. Thus far, more than 82,000 records for many species – such as the Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Purple Martin and Black-throated Blue Warbler - have been scanned.

“I look forward to volunteers getting involved and helping in this important scientific endeavor,” Zelt said. “Their assistance to make the information available in a database is essential to help further the understanding bird migration and occurrence.”

21 December 2008

Keep Ban on Oil Sands

The Public Pulse. Sunday World-Herald 144(12): 6B.

Fuel derived from tar-sands in Canada (Dec. 16 Midlands Voices) should have no role in energy resources for the United States. There are simply too many problems from the extraction and shipping process.

The following details are documented by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Boreal Songbird Initiative and Pembina Institute. Consider these specific impacts from tar-sands development given in a report:

  • Loss of forest and wetland habitat due to the projected strip-mining of 740,000 acres of forests and wetlands, leading to the loss of breeding habitat for between 480,000 and 3.6 million adult birds over the next 30-50 years.
  • Mortality of birds that get trapped in the sticky goo of ponds is estimated to range from more than 8,000 birds to well over 100,000.
  • Fragmentation of habitat means particular species disappear as their habitats are destroyed.
  • Water reduction causes the loss of more than 700,000 acres of wetlands
  • Air and water toxins are hazardous to the health of wildlife, as well as to human residents as well.

When habitat is destroyed, there is no other place a pair of birds can consider as a home to raise a brood. The result is a loss of production, leading to a eventual decline in a species’ population.


This is an edited version - due to space limitations - of the submitted comments. The response was written because of this particular sentence in the "Voices" editorial written by a petroleum geologist: "Action has been taken to protect wildlife."

There was no further information provided in the pro-development comments.

19 December 2008

Research into Historic Ornithology Relies on Online Resources

A particular element essential to gaining knowledge of wildbirds during historic times is access to a myriad of online resources that can provident pertinent details. The vast array of material in the digital realm has many precise details needed to document occurrence and distribution at a particular place and time.

In their narrative, a scribe noted what details of birds seen or known. The details vary according to the interest and intent of the writer, but one essential and consistent component is an identification, whether it was a commonly used term or a detailed scientific description derived from the accepted taxonomy of the era.

When a particular species was noted, the given terminology was based on the writer's current knowledge, or access - during an era with multiple constraints on the spread of information - to the writings of others. The scholarly works available to review when denoting a particular species would make an obvious difference. Were collection specimens available to provide a comparison, and usually a requisite to evaluate features of specimen? If a copy of the latest volume of a zoological journal or annals of science was not handy for referral, the author may have not realized the species was already suitably described. There were many challenges, of course.

Array of Resources

In evaluating the bird history for the modern millenium, online searches provide a completely unique and fresh tool with its distinctly new and effective means of research through a world wide web of information.

Online searches have multiple benefits. Search results obviously surpass whatever information might be found in the nearest scholarly library. It certainly exceeds the array of holdings that persist within any state of residence. Search methods can reveal different results. Again and again something of pertinence - known or unexpected - is presented.

Search terminology - with a lexicon of its own - using quotes and other modifier options, certainly can make a difference. A dead-end where there is nothing meaningful shown when using an exact search, can be altered by using different directions for the computer. A fuzzy-search can be useful when the original source has misspellings or uses an alternate spelling that does not fit the norm of other published names.

The word-working might lead to another reference that uses the same name, but provides a different set of clues to historic distribution of birds for the continent. There may something of unexpected interest found that is worth further consideration. In numerous cases, while working on bird history, the search on a particular scientific name provided results that included another pertinent reference, and previously not known, but certainly worth a detour down a different lane of investigation.

Archaic Nomenclature

A particular realm of consideration is historic nomenclature, a scheme that has consistently changed for the huge variety of birds that have occurred around the globe. Scientific names of the 1600s from Buzzard's Bay or in the west at Puerto de Monterey or perhaps also at the Bay of Eleven Thousand Virgins certainly are not the norms of the modern-era. Conforming those old terms to modern equivalents is a chore in the least, and at times a perplexing difficulty.

Searching for a specific scientific name given in a historic article can in some instances lead to a definitive identification. The working alternative is essential documentary details with a variety of resultant tangents. If a the modern equivalent of an archaic scientific name cannot be readily found, the terms can be entered in an alternate manner, and with a click, some other potential solutions are given to consider.

The search tool is especially helpful with taxonomy, which has been always be consistently and constantly changing. Even if a match to a particular set of two Latin language names may match multiple sources, it may not correlate to the modern equivalent, so further looking might be required to eventually match a current accepted scientific name. When there is no exact match, the terms can be entered in alternate way - with recognized search modifiers to refine the inquisition - for results that lead onward to further details that can lead to a useful match.

While determining the distribution of wildbirds in America northward of Panama, web searches provided many equivalents of matching ancient nomenclature to modern norms. Efforts by a scant few are also providing new resources that combine their determined results of research into a vastly useful resource.

Foreign Sources

While evaluating the species known for North America, one essential reference tool available at the local university library, was the bound volume of the American Ornithologists' Union checklist of 1998. By comparing a list of species derived from historic references published in North American, there were species not documented. There was certainly a gap, but by reviewing the published AOU list, additional references were found that needed to be checked.

In a few cases, the research meant reading some alternate languages. This certainly had not been expected in working on bird history for a continent where the primary language for many was English. The common essential thread was having the birds' scientific name given, in Latin.

Older material from Canada contained French terminology, but often the original sources had already been translated by a researcher. The linguistics were interesting of course, but no challenge to deriving an identity.

Many of the first descriptions of wild animal species occurred in foreign publications. English language sources abound from publishing houses in London, especially prior to 1850. The Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London started in the 1830s, and the celebrated John Gould wrote up some of the first notes for North American species in the early 1840s.

In 1859, The Ibis, the first journal dedicated to the subject of ornithology, was published in England. Its first paper was on the ornithology of central America, by Philip Lutley Sclater and Osbert Salvin. There was also a paper on birds of the West Indies in the issues of the year.

Articles or books in three foreign languages in particular have been looked while delving further into brd history..

One of the older items was printed in Russian. The 1811-era zoographica by the celebrated Petrus Simon Pallas, M.D., was for an area including the Bering Strait and Aleutian Islands, once part of the vast Russian nation, but now part of Alaska.

In the mid-1850s and mid-1860s era, the Journal of Ornithology published in the German Democratic Republic, has some important papers on the occurrence of species in middle America, notably Cuba and Costa Rica.

More recently, a journal with the title La Naturaleza, had a list of species for Veracruz by senor Don Francisco Sumichrast. His important findings had been published elsewhere in articles authored by other notable ornithologist's but in the early 1870s, a national journal allowed him to write up his findings in his native language.

Valuable Email

An additional essential aspect of research investigation is back-and-forth communication from the available web of email. Contacts given on a web-page are an avenue to ask someone for a particular detail. In some instances, a focused answer to a query provided as the result of asking someone else - with their expertise and attuned knowledge - about a particularly intractable name, where even the web does not given something suitable, was a welcome reply.

Direct communications has also been essential in getting further details for a particular quandary, and to provide input that may help improve the details given by an online resource. This may be as simple as correcting a typographical error, correcting a misspelled name that would mean certain consternation for someone trying to find specific information, or clarifying a bit of detail to improve the quality of the information within a larger set of data.

Errors can be readily changed only in the information is available for review and easy comment.

Online Material Furthers Interpretation of History

Results provided by online searches has increased the ability to find material pertinent to historic birds, furthering an inquest into further, in-depth research investigations. For bird nomenclature, there are a couple of particularly notable web-sources of note.

Search Considerations

Online searches of historic material provide an unexpected and diverse array of results to excite the researcher. Known history is a unique and distinct window to tomorrow by using the array of knowledge from the past. With so many potential avenues open to the past through online items of a myriad sort, the understanding of what once was has an improved understanding to know what the environment of today is about.

Online resources are certainly a treasure-chest for the researcher investigating the history of birds. The price is certainly reasonable for a researcher with no budget. Access is immediate if the computers are working properly at the local library. Gratitude is the operative word, since without access to online material, research would certainly be limited by a lack of knowledge, and it it just really fine to be able to read material once ensconced in a library a thousand miles away.

There are some consistent findings have occurred during a multitude of searches that need some consideration to work towards improvements.

The miscellaneous volumes of a scientific journal should be equitably displayed, instead of showing most of a sequence year-by-year but just giving a snippet of something for a year within the range where many others are shown in their entirety. This applies, for example, to the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London. There are bunch of these issues shown from more than 150 years in the past, but the 1863 issue in particular, is only available in a snippet view. The online issue available is just an index. The 1861, 1862 and 1864 issues also have not been found for their due consideration.

And these volumes have several articles of interest that are not available because of this means of presentation.

Also for this journal, there are two directions that can be used to access the volumes online. Selecting one search result leads to three pages of results with links to items - excluding one - where only a snippet view is given. Selecting a different result, provides the preferable five pages of options with full-view access.

Another item of dire consequence, is quality. If a paged is scanned in a manner where it is not at all legible for reading, it is useless to a researcher and obviously frustrating. Although there is an option to send a message that the page is not legible, the means of how this is dealt with is not known, especially is and when the page is redone and ready for reading.

Quality is essential to provide resources that are readily useful now and in the long term. This includes quality presentation, using effective tags to mark and identify a volume, and other little details that can make a difference.

Inconsistent results may be provided on occasion. Most recently, a Spanish-language paper about the birds of Veracruz was located while doing a search for a particular scientific name. The download to a PDF option was used to save the volume for future reference. A brief time later - on the same morning - when looking for the same item, when using the article title as the search term, a subsequent article - a continuation - was found instead, then saved for reference. But when looking for the first article, it could not be relocated using several search options.

A helpful change when displaying search results would be to have them sorted by year. Instead of the oldest volume being buried on a subsequent page or pages, it should show up earlier in the list, making it easier to find a particular volume in a series. It would also be helpful to do a search limited to the results provided by an initial search, i.e., to search through the volumes of a particular journal.

Furthering Knowledge of Bird History

Achieving an understandable history of wildbirds for the northern continent of America could be a useless frustration without the myriad of essential details found around on the internet. In particular, consider some things known from a focused investigation into the history of wildbirds extant in the North American continent prior to 1875:

  • Historically published information gives key details on the occurrence of numerous bird species at a particular place and time;
  • Nomenclatural equivalents given through searches among an array of now online publications provided by a great variety of entities that have undertaken digitizing efforts;
  • New sources of information can be found from unexpected resources because of nomenclature norms
  • Search results can lead to unexpected results due to matching terms only found through word matches;
  • Insights into the historic efforts of men instrumental in describing bird species distributed about the continent;
  • Understanding of how many people have contributed to the knowledge and subsequent appreciation of birds and their presence in a variety of natural environments during different places in time;
  • How the strictures of science have continued through so many decades during an unabated effort to know and understand birds and their relationships;
  • An endless source of published appreciation for wildbirds in the many different environments, hither and yon across a geographic region.
  • Appreciation for the commitment of so may people that have documented the history of birdlife at so many different places, presenting bone studies, direct observations, specimen studies, et al. to know more about the winged members of the world, wherever the person with an interest sufficient to get the particulars recorded in a journal or some alternate publication of yore, may have been.
  • Realization of how there is a such a particular interest in birds which is something ageless and provides so many valuable insights into the character or the natural wild environment; and
  • An essential need to present viable alternatives to archive personal efforts of bird history to ensure the hard work is preserved and available beyond the time when someone is actively working on a particular project of notable importance.

Investigating bird history and the state of the science for North American avifauna in past decades is possible only through use of the grand variety of online resources ready for use by the intrepid researcher. Results provide a better and more thorough understanding of the past for wildbirds documented throughout the continent.

Information online has expanded to the extent where it is basically essential for any historic studies, and further development and improvements will make it more and more valuable. The future potential is certainly exciting for learning more from bird history from two centuries in the past, or from the modern efforts that so thoroughly and accurately document bird distribution and occurrence contributions.

16 December 2008

Arctic Research Compares Birdlife of Different Decades

Arctic Tern. Photo: Sarah Trefry

For Sarah Trefry, a graduate student at the University of New Brunswick, the past summer provided a unique opportunity to compare some Arctic bird populations to those present twenty years ago.

“The surveys were just one part of the much larger ongoing ecological research program of Dr. Greg Henry, a professor at the University of British Columbia,” Trefry said. “His multidisciplinary program monitors bird, animal, insect, and plant populations over time.”

Dr. Henry “knew about my interest in birds, and suggested that I conduct bird surveys of the lowland to compare with earlier surveys done by Dr. Bill Freedman of Dalhousie University. I was also interested in comparing Dr. Freedman's survey technique with a more intensive ‘rope drag’ technique, as a measure of the proportion of breeding birds that get 'captured' through a walking census.

“Breeding bird survey were done at the same site in the early 1980s,” she explained, and “breeding bird populations have also been infrequently monitored at the site since 1980.”

The past summers field work by Trefry (a summer between her MSc project investigating collared pika vocalizations in the Yukon and PhD project on sexual dimorphism and sex ratios in Magnificent Frigatebirds) was the first year she was involved with research at Alexandra Fiord.

The field season’s “climate was slightly unusual for the Canadian High Arctic. At our camp, spring melt-out came late, but arrived without warning. All snow at the site melted over two days in mid-June. The last two weeks of June were warm and sunny. July was much cloudier and cooler. ‘Winter’ arrived when it typically does in mid-August.” this information actually came from James Hudson, since his project has been working with the climate data. You could attribute this quote to him.

Sarah Trefry and James Hudson on rope-drag. Photo: Carolyn Churchland.

The breeding bird surveys at Alexandra Fiord and Ellesmere Island conducted from mid June to late July - with the assistance of James Hudson (studying plant ecology) – were done by “walking transects and rope dragging within five plots, to obtain a measure of how many birds were being spotted on the walking transects.”

The surveys showed “very similar results in breeding bird species and abundances compared to the earlier surveys done at the site.”

“We found few changes in bird densities and species present in the lowland compared to earlier surveys,” Trefry explained. “A few species formerly breeding in low numbers on the lowland were absent, such as Arctic Terns, but these were nesting in high density on a nearby island. The walking census seemed to perform quite well compared to the more labour-intensive rope drags, which James and I spent many hours doing.”

Eight species were found breeding in the lowland habitat, according to the international breeding conditions survey posted on Arctic Birds network: “Snow Buntings, Hoary Redpolls, Lapland Longspurs, Parasitic Jaegers, Long-tailed Ducks, and Baird's Sandpipers. There was also evidence of Rock Ptarmigan, Arctic Turns, and a pair of Gyrfalcons nesting (though the Gyrfalcon nest failed this year). The following numbers of probable and confirmed nests by species were found at the lowland: Snow Buntings: 132, Hoary Redpolls: 2, Lapland Longspur: 19, Parasitic Jaegar: 2, Long-tailed Duck: 2, Baird's Sandpiper: 6.”

Female Long-tail duck on nest. Photo: Sarah Trefry

Lapland Longspur chicks. Photo: Sarah Trefry

“Species like jaegers and ducks were very susceptible to Arctic Fox and Gray Wolf predators if their nests were found, and the jaegar pairs this year at our site were not successful. Climate data for the site shows ambient warming in temperature over the past twenty years, but as of yet the breeding birds appear to be relatively comparable over time.”

“These results are interesting because there was no significant change in the composition of bird species during the breeding season in this area, whereas other Arctic research sites have been noted as having declining breeding bird populations, Trefry noted.

William Brown and Carolyn Churchland relax in the Ellesmere sun. Photo: Sarah Trefry

Trefry, originally from Alberta, has “always enjoyed working in the Canadian Arctic. It is a visually stunning, invigorating, and inaccessible place to work, and one feels very special to get the opportunity to be there. There are few species of animals, but those that are there you often get good looks at, and one cannot help but admire their adaptations for survival in northern climates. I loved the sunshine in June, 24 hours of constant light as the sun makes its circuit around the sky. It makes you feel like you can go forever. Tundra naps are also a highlight - the sun is also appreciated then!

“Alexandra is a neat site because it has a history of Royal Canadian Mounted Police living there with Inuit families, and evidence of them living there remains. On the nearby islands there are also remains of Thule whalers who hunted for Bowhead whales, which are no longer found in that area.

“The locations also means that you are very isolated. This became a challenge when James had a bit of a medical condition and I came into camp while he was flown to a hospital in Iqaluit. However, a second Twin Otter brought him in a week later. And with the isolation comes a forced self-sufficiency, and often the opportunity to become fast friends with those you are working with. And we had a really great crew this year, who were a delight to work with.“

"Support for the project came from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, Government of Canada International Polar Year Program, and ArcticNet graciously provided financial support for our 2008 field campaign. Invaluable logistical support was given by the Polar Continental Shelf Project. The Qikiqtani Inuit Association, Nunavut Department of Environment and Royal Canadian Mounted Police authorized our research in 2008."

The multidisciplinary, ecological research project will continue to monitor bird, animal, insect, and plant populations.

Alexandra Fiord field crew, 2008. L-R: Sarah Trefry, Tammy Elliott, Adrian Leitch, William Brown, Carolyn Churchland. Photo: James Hudson.

09 December 2008

Wildbirds Impacted by Extraction of Tar-Sands Petroleum

Image courtesy of the Boreal Songbirds Initiative.

A newly released report details how extraction of tar-sands petroleum is directly impacting populations of wild birds in the boreal forest area of northern Alberta, Canada.

Danger in the Nursery: Impact on Birds of Tar Sands Oil Development in Canada’s Boreal Forest” was released in early December by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Boreal Songbird Initiative and Pembina Institute.

The 39-page report identifies several ways in which tar-sand development is affecting populations of a myriad of species, including:

* Loss of forest and wetland habitat
“The projected strip-mining of 740,000 acres of forests and wetlands in the tar sands will result in the loss of breeding habitat for between 480,000 and 3.6 million adult birds over the next 30-50 years,” according to the report. “The corresponding impact on breeding will mean a loss of 4.8 million to 36 million young birds over a 20-year period and a loss of 9.6 million to 72 million birds over a 40-year period.”
* Mortality of birds that get trapped in tailings ponds
“Annual bird mortality on current tar sands tailings ponds could range from more than 8,000 birds to well over 100,000.”
* Fragmentation of habitat from drilling
“Numerous bird studies have shown that as habitats become fragmented, specific species are lost from isolated habitat patches.”
* Water withdrawals
“Tar sands surface mining, in situ extraction, and upgrading use large volumes of water taken from the Athabasca River for mining and from underground saline aquifers for in situ extraction. The tar sands surface mining operation itself requires the total draining, destruction, and removal of the wetland habitats overlying the targeted bitumen deposit. An estimated 40 percent of the 740,000 acres of habitat that will be removed in the tar sands strip-mining process are wetlands.”

Suncor upgrader facility. Credit: David Dodge, Pembina Institute

* Air and water toxins
“Heavy metals, including mercury, lead, and cadmium, are released into the air from tar sands refining processes and machinery emissions and from leakage and emissions from tailings ponds.”

“At a time when bird populations are rapidly declining, this report puts into perspective the far reaching effects of tar sands oil development on North America’s birds,” said the report’s lead author Jeff Wells, Ph.D. of the Boreal Songbird Initiative. “The public needs to understand the real and long-term ecological costs of this development and determine if this is acceptable.”

Species especially being impacted by declines in the extent of boreal forest include, for example, the Lesser Yellowlegs, Blackpoll Warbler, Canada Warbler, Boreal Chickadee, Olive-sided Flycatcher, and Rusty Blackbird, according to information at the BSI website, where pictures and video showing tar-sand development are also available. Numerous other “at-risk species” also occur in the tar-sands development area.

“This development is destroying habitat for waterfowl and songbirds that come from all over the Americas to nest in the Boreal. Each year between 22 and 170 million birds breed in the 35 million acres of Boreal forest that could eventually be developed for tar sands oil,” according to the report.

“Canada’s Boreal forest is a globally important destination for birds as a nesting area and breeding habitat, especially for an array of wetland-dependent birds,” according to the Boreal Songbird Initiative. “Unfortunately the rapidly expanding tar sands oil extraction industry increasingly puts these birds at risk. It is estimated that half of America’s migratory birds nest in the Boreal forest, and each year 22–170 million birds breed in the area that could eventually be developed for tar sands oil. The report projects that the cumulative impact over the next 30–50 years could be as high as 166 million birds lost, including future generations. The report suggests impacts will increase in the next 30–50 years, despite international treaties to protect these birds.”

The report also identifies how construction of pipelines associated with tar-sands development have an effect on the environment a great distance from the site of mining. A proposed pipeline for natural gas that would follow the MacKenzie River valley is specifically identified as being detrimental to wild birds and their habitats.

“Natural gas from the Mackenzie Delta would be extracted using a network of wells, pipelines, roads, and other facilities and shipped south along large transmission pipelines. Heavy machinery would be deployed to construct the infrastructure, and new underground pipelines would tunnel under or cross 580 rivers and streams. The environmental impacts from gas development include clearing of vegetation, fragmenting habitat, damaging permafrost, and soil erosion.”

“The loss of as many as 166 million birds is a wholly unacceptable price to pay for America’s addiction to oil,” said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz of the Natural Resource Defense Council, a contributing author to the report. “Birds tell us so much about what is going on in the environment around us. This report makes it very clear that they are telling us it is time for a change in American energy policy. There are better energy options available in North America that do not foul our air, poison our waters, or kill our backyard birds.”

Several measures are suggested by the authors of the report, to protect boreal birds and their habitats. They include:

  • “Stop Granting Approvals for New Tar Sands Developments
  • “Protect Bird Habitat and Regulate Environmental Impacts of Tar Sands Developments
  • “Ensure Best Practices in the Tar Sands
  • “Implement Laws Protecting Migratory Birds
  • “Move Away from Dependence on Tar Sands as a Fuel Source”

“This report is yet another wake up call to the government in Alberta, as it confirms that the cumulative impact of oil sands development is on an unsustainable trajectory,” said Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute, another contributing author. “It is clear that oil sands mining and in-situ development is already taking a toll on boreal birds. Alberta must move quickly to implement long overdue conservation planning and policies to address these impacts.”

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