Hundreds of canvasback ducks flock to open water on a cold winter morning on Chesapeake Bay. (Photograph: Paul Bramble)
“They came back,” says biologist Donald Webster. “This year.” His voice has a wistful note, wondering if the king of ducks, as the beautiful, crimson-headed canvasback is known, will return to rule Chesapeake Bay again next winter.
In parka, gloves and hat, Webster, waterfowl coordinator for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), raises his binoculars near a seawall that runs along the Choptank River near Cambridge, Maryland. The lookout where the Choptank meets the Chesapeake is a mecca for wintering canvasbacks and other ducks.
“Canvasbacks, the waterfowl everyone comes to see, are usually here by Christmas, sometimes by Thanksgiving,” Webster says. “They stay through March, then they’re gone, heading north to nesting grounds.”
Canvasbacks form large groups in winter, especially in areas near food sources. Here, on Chesapeake Bay. (Photograph: Paul Bramble)
Skeins of waterfowl
On this early March morning with calm winds and temperatures that hover around freezing, the canvasbacks’ red heads stand out against winter-dark waters. The ducks glide near the seawall, where a dozen photographers jostle for a quintessential shot of an iconic Chesapeake duck. “This spot is known as the ‘wall of shame,’” laughs Webster, “because it’s almost too easy to get great waterfowl pictures here.”
Chesapeake skies fill with ducks – canvasbacks, buffleheads, greater and lesser scaup, and many others – from December through March. The bay is the Atlantic Coast’s most important waterfowl migration and wintering area. The Chesapeake and its 19 major tributaries, including the Patuxent and Potomac rivers, provide winter habitat for 24 species of ducks as well as Canada geese, greater snow geese and tundra swans on their annual stopovers.
“Long-term worsening of the Chesapeake’s water quality, however, and loss of habitat, especially the grasses so many of these birds depend on, have contributed to declines in wintering waterfowl on the bay,” says Webster.
Canvasbacks in a spot along the Chesapeake that’s protected from winter winds, and where aquatic grasses are ready-to-eat. (Photograph: Paul Bramble)
Seesawing duck and grass estimates
According to a 2016 estimate, the most recent available, some 97,433 acres of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) remain in the bay and its tributaries, down from historic levels that may have reached more than 600,000 acres.
There’s good news, however. The 2016 estimate is an 8 percent increase over 2015, and more than twice the SAV in 2013.
In 2011, Chesapeake SAV fell to 48,195 acres, a result of the effects of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. The storms sent a flood of sediment downstream and into the bay. Conditions since, which have been relatively dry, reduced the flow of grass-smothering sediment and helped the SAV recover. More sunlight has reached submerged grasses, allowing them to flourish. In turn, SAV filters runoff, helping keep Chesapeake waters clear.
Several birds watch a canvasback diving for dinner. (Photograph: Paul Bramble)
SAV: A canvasback’s best friend
As recently as 1950, half the continent’s population of canvasbacks – more than a quarter million — wintered in Chesapeake Bay, relying on aquatic grasses as a favored food source.
During Colonial times, as many as one million canvasbacks may have spent wintertime on the bay. In the 19th century, the ducks’ abundance and, to many, good taste made them a favored selection in many East Coast restaurants, says Matt Kneisley, regional director for the Northeast Atlantic Flyway at the Delta Waterfowl Foundation, a waterfowl conservation and hunting organization.
The birds congregate in large flocks on open waters, leading to easy -– too-easy — harvesting. At the end of the 19th century, commercial hunters with batteries of weapons went after rafts of canvasbacks, often killing dozens with one shot. The ducks were shipped by boxcar to markets from Baltimore to Boston. Such “market hunting” was outlawed with the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
“Canvasbacks were a favored quarry of market hunters because their meat was considered the tastiest of all the ducks due to their consumption of wild celery,” writes Guy Baldassarre in the 2014 edition of Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America.
Adds Kneisley, “Large beds of wild celery, a canvasback favorite, once attracted thousands of these ducks to an upper bay area known as Susquehanna Flats.” The decline in the Chesapeake’s water quality greatly reduced the amount of wild celery bay-wide, however.
The ducks switched their foraging efforts to small clams on the Chesapeake’s shallow bottom. A less nutritious diet of shellfish such as Baltic clams may affect canvasbacks’ winter survival rates, scientists believe.
Canvasbacks shed water after diving for food. How many of these ducks winter on the Chesapeake? To find out, scientists conduct an annual count. (Photograph: Paul Bramble)
Annual bird counts, Webster says, “give us a very good picture of how declines in SAV have affected wintering waterfowl.”
Half a century ago, four to five million ducks, geese and swans spent time on Chesapeake Bay during the winter. Now, that number is less than one million, according to results from the 2018 Midwinter Waterfowl Survey. The nationwide count has taken place annually since the 1950s.
Along the Chesapeake and nearby Atlantic coast, aerial survey teams of pilots and biologists from the Maryland DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service make visual estimates of the region’s waterfowl. In 2018, the teams counted some 1,023,300 ducks, geese and swans, higher than the 812,600 birds observed in 2017 and above the 5-year average of 851,980.
“Cold weather and accompanying ice and snow to the north will typically push birds south as they search for food and open water,” says Maryland DNR Wildlife and Heritage Service director Paul Peditto. With December’s frigid temperatures and iced-in lakes in northern states, ducks were on-the-wing to points south.
Estimates of Chesapeake canvasbacks in 2018 were 60,000; in 2017, 75,100; in 2016, 19,800; and in 2015, 64,200. Sixty years earlier, in 1955, 225,450 canvasbacks were sighted. The last time the canvasback count exceeded 100,000 was in 1967: 133,100.
Nonetheless, says Webster, “Chesapeake Bay is one of the best places on Earth to see waterfowl in winter, and as they migrate in and out in late fall and early spring.”
Most waterfowl migrate along corridors, the well-known “flyways.” Four major routes pass through the United States: the Pacific Flyway, which runs north-south along the West Coast; the Mississippi Flyway, which leads from the bays of northern Canada and the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico; the Central Flyway from northwestern Canada to Central America and the Yucatan Peninsula; and the Atlantic Flyway, which funnels waterfowl from central and eastern Canada along the Atlantic Coast to Florida. Chesapeake Bay is a major duck stop along the Atlantic Flyway.
A lone canvasback hen in a crowd of potential suitors. (Photograph: Paul Bramble)
Many of the Chesapeake’s wintering ducks began life in the prairie pothole region, which extends from the Midwestern northern tier states into Canada. There, about half North America’s ducklings hatch.
When the Wisconsin ice sheet of the last glacial period retreated northward some 15,000 years ago, tens of thousands of landlocked icebergs were left in its wake, writes Michael Furtman in On the Wings of a North Wind: The Waterfowl and Wetlands of North America’s Inland Flyways.
These small icebergs melted into the soil. As they faded, Furtman states, “they became the foundation of the prairie potholes. An estimated 10 million glacially carved depressions once pockmarked the landscape of the prairie pothole region of the United States and Canada.”
As climate warmed, the potholes evolved into a habitat so enticing that more than 130 bird species have used a single pothole in one year. Ducks were likely among the first residents. With millions of potholes from which to choose, waterfowl had plenty of room to find nesting sites.
“The diversity of potholes, ranging from small spring ponds to large permanent wetlands, provided ducks with the habitats necessary for each stage in their breeding and brood-rearing cycles,” Furtman states.
But as undisturbed land in the region gave way to agriculture, the number of potholes decreased, especially over the last 40 years. In North Dakota’s pothole region, where as many as 100 of these basins per square mile once existed, “60 percent of the original five million acres of wetlands has been lost,” Furtman reports. “Ninety-five percent of that loss is attributable to agriculture.”
Will the Chesapeake always welcome wintering canvasbacks? (Photograph: Paul Bramble)
If increasing agriculture isn’t challenge enough for waterfowl, rising global temperatures may result in more frequent and severe droughts in the prairie pothole region. The effect on breeding ducks would be devastating, says Webster.
“Decades ago,” he remembers, “the Chesapeake was full of canvasbacks. But no more. I’d like to see the days come back when canvasbacks’ red heads bobbed on the water as far as you could see.”
Canvasbacks and the many other ducks that winter on the Chesapeake have come a long way, Webster says. “The least we can do is show them some hospitality by making sure their environment — here, and on their breeding grounds — is healthy.”
Otherwise, the spectacle along the Choptank River may vanish, the seawall indeed becoming a wall of shame as the last canvasback’s wingbeats fade into silence.
The last Chesapeake canvasback? We need to do our part to help the “king of ducks” grace the bay each winter. (Photograph: Paul Bramble)
Turn over a few rocks and logs in a moist forest and you will certainly find a salamander. Well, not exactly. While this is true in many areas in North America and Europe, salamanders are quite rare in some other places, where other types of amphibians, such as frogs and caecilians, are common.
Contrary to the general patterns of global biodiversity, where tropical forests harbor the majority of species, the bulk of salamander diversity is found in temperate forests of the northern hemisphere. Most groups of salamanders are confined to temperate zones, including a high number of species that are be found only in the United States.
One group of salamanders has, however, successfully colonized Central and South America: Lungless salamanders (Plethodontidae). These small-size, lizard-like amphibians are usually terrestrial and inhabit a variety of habitats, including the forest floor, crevices and caves, inside bromeliads and tree holes—some are even found high up in tree canopies.
Brazil is the country with the most amphibian species anywhere in the world—13 percent of the 7,800 known amphibian species occur in the country. However, out of more than one thousand amphibians in Brazil, only five are salamanders. In fact, until very recently only a single species was recognized—a study in 2013 discovered three new species and provided scattered records of another one. All Brazilian species are members of the lungless salamanders group, and are restricted to Amazonia. They are all relatively rare, extremely poorly known with respect to their biology, and most already face major threats to their survival.
Pará’s Lungless Salamander (Bolitoglossa paraensis), one of the five species of salamander that occur in Brazil—the species is threatened with extinction due to destruction of its forest habitat. (Photo: Pedro Peloso)
Conservation of Amazonian Salamanders
One of the five species of Brazilian salamanders is Pará’s lungless salamander (Bolitoglossa paraensis), which is restricted to forested areas of the easternmost portion of Amazonia. Although locally abundant where it occurs, the species has a patchy distribution and is only found in a few well-preserved rainforest areas. The species does not tolerate too much disturbance to its habitat and cannot survive in open or cleared areas. Most of the species’ range is within the Amazonian Arc of Deforestation, and therefore the Brazilian Government has listed the species as officially threatened with extinction.
The other four species also appear to be rare and are usually found in areas with increasing threats to their survival. These threats include rampant deforestation, pollution, changes in rain patterns that may affect their reproductive cycle, the building of large hydroelectric dams (Tapajós and Madeira Rivers) and, potentially, infectious diseases (such as chytrid fungus).
Caldwell’s Lungless Salamander (Bolitoglossa caldwellae) was described in 2013—it was named after biologist Janalee Caldwell, whos dedicated many years to the study and conservation of Amazonian amphibians. Very little is known about its biology and distribution.
The Brazilian portion of the Amazonian rainforest harbors an incredible diversity of animals and plants, many of which are unique to that part of the globe, or are very rare.
A large portion of Amazonian species are poorly known in most aspects of their biology and geographic distribution, which makes any assessment of their conservation status difficult. In the specific case of amphibians, several Amazonian species were never assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Moreover, many of those that were evaluated are labeled as Data Deficient (DD)—this means there are no sufficient scientific data for a conclusive assessment of their conservation status.
Out of the five species of salamanders in Brazil, one is listed as DD and three have not yet been evaluated. Finally, given that many areas of the Brazilian Amazonia are completely unexplored, it is possible that additional species of salamanders will discovered there in the future.
The bottom line is: we need more field biologists collecting data on Amazonian salamanders (and other organisms). This is critical for their survival.
Tapajós Lungless Salamander (Bolitoglossa tapajonica), one of three species discovered in a study in 2013. The construction of hydroelectric dams and deforestation in the Tapajós River region threatens the habitat of this species—and consequently imperils its survival. (Photo: Pedro Peloso)
Indonesia is a megadiversity country, but even by its exceptionally high levels of biodiversity, Sulawesi stands out for its bewilderingly rich, charismatic and, at times, quirky species. The island, whose shape resembles a hyper-extended letter K, is the 11th largest in the world.
Sulawesi’s shape and rugged terrain were forged by the collision of land masses from Asia and Australasia that brought with them their own unique flora and fauna, which subsequently went into evolutionary overdrive as rapid speciation ensued.
Sulawesi is a rich treasure trove of awe-inspiring biodiversity that inhabits the island’s rugged and lush forest landscapes. WCS and MoEF are working together to document these species and fully protect them for future generations.
There are a staggering 127 mammal species in Sulawesi, of which 62 percent are endemic just to this island. If bats are removed from this list then the number of endemic mammal species rises to almost 99 percent. Among the 233 species of birds, more than a third are Sulawesi endemics.
Sulawesi contains seven endemic species of macaque, including the Critically Endangered black-crested macaque. Credit: WCS Indonesia.
To document this vast array of poorly understood wildlife as a first step in identifying and prioritising areas for protection, WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) and the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry (MoEF)—with support from the UNDP/GEF EPASS project, Rainforest Trust, and Fondation Segré—have just completed the first ever systematic camera trap campaign for Sulawesi.
Over the course of a year, WCS-MoEF-community field teams surveyed two of the island’s flagship protected areas: Bogani Nani Wartabone National Park and the Tangkoko Forest Management Unit. The findings offer invaluable scientific data and rare insights into Sulawesi’s little known species, including the first ever photographic record of arguably Sulawesi’s most elusive bird.
Here, we highlight some of the exciting discoveries.
Despite hunting threat to Sulawesi’s two wild pig species, our surveys found that, encouragingly, they still occur both inside and outside of the protected areas.
Babirusa and Sulawesi warty pig
Of Asia’s 11 threatened species of wild pig, two are endemic to Sulawesi. The babirusa, listed as Vulnerable on the Red List of species maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), is an ancient species of pig that is hairless and has enormous tusks growing through its upper jaw.
The babirusa, listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, is one of two wild pig species endemic to Sulawesi. Credit: WCS Indonesia.
In stark contrast, the Near-Threatened Sulawesi warty pig has a jet-black coat and a white ‘war paint’ looking fur line across its face. Both species are hunted to supply the Christian food markets in North Sulawesi. Yet despite this threat, our surveys found that these species, encouragingly, still occur both inside and outside of the protected areas.
The Endangered lowland anoa and mountain anoa are dwarf species of buffaloes that more closely resemble deer. They have become flagship species for protection.
The Endangered lowland anoa and mountain anoa have become flagship species for protection. Credit: WCS Indonesia.
As Lukita Awang Nistyantara, the Head of Bogani Nani Wartabone National Park, put it, “The anoa is a Ministry of Environment and Forestry priority species and we’ve set a goal to increase its population size. So, we’re delighted with these new findings from inside the park because we’ve just established the first ranger patrol teams, which forms part of our site-level management implementation.” He continued, “We’ll now use these data to direct our teams to focus on protecting the critically important forest anoa habitat identified”.
Sulawesi’s apex mammalian predator is the sleek and slender Sulawesi civet.
On the nearby island of Sumatra, wild pigs and deer sustain populations of tiger, clouded leopard and dhole. Yet, even though Sulawesi has an equally rich and diverse prey base, this has not given rise to the island’s own large carnivore. Instead, the island’s apex mammalian predator is the sleek and slender Sulawesi civet.
Sulawesi’s apex mammalian predator is the sleek and slender Sulawesi civet. Credit: WCS Indonesia.
Weighing around 6 kg (13 pounds) with a diet of rodents, birds, and palms fruits, this largely arboreal mammal is one of the least known species from Sulawesi. Our surveys not only succeeded in obtaining the first island-wide records after a 20-year absence but also the very first records of the species from both Bogani Nani Wartabone and Tangkoko.
Sulawesi contains seven endemic species of macaque. Our camera traps reveal where two of these species—the Critically Endangered black-crested macaque and Vulnerable Dumoga macaque—have neatly separated their range. The surveys also captured another one of Sulawesi’s distinctive peculiarities with the first ever record of a pure white ‘black’ crested macaque!
WCS camera traps have revealed that the Vulnerable Dumoga macaque (above) and the Critically Endangered black-crested macaque have neatly separated their ranges on Sulawesi. Credit: WCS Indonesia.
Agustinus Rante Lembang, Head of the North Sulawesi Natural Resource and Conservation Agency noted, “there may only be 9,000 black-crested macaques left in the wild, yet about 60 percent of these occur in Tangkoko. It’s only 84 square kilometers, but you see its importance for the species’s survival.”
To prevent maleo egg theft, WCS has been employing ex-bird poachers as nest guardians. Since 2001 they have overseen the release of 12,515 chicks in four key nesting grounds.
This unique but Vulnerable bird incubates its eggs in nests that are heated either by the sun on Sulawesi’s pristine beaches or by the warmth of underground volcanic activity at inland sites. Maleo eggs are roughly five times as large as that of a domestic chicken’s and, because of this, highly susceptible to poaching.
To prevent egg theft, WCS has been employing ex-bird poachers as nest guardians. Since 2001 they have overseen the release of 12,515 chicks in four key nesting grounds in and around Bogani Nani Wartabone National Park, which has become a stronghold for the species.
Sulawesi’s Vulnerable maleo incubates its eggs in nests that are heated either by the sun on the island’s pristine beaches or by the warmth of underground volcanic activity at inland sites. Credit: WCS Indonesia.
WCS’s Sulawesi Program Manager, Iwan Hunowu, who has been studying maleos for 12 years, noted that “the camera trapping showed maleos using new forest corridors connecting beach nesting grounds to the national park.”
Unfortunately, forest loss and fragmentation due to the encroachment of small farms threatens to sever vital linkages between these nesting sites and forest refuge inside the national park. “Because of this,” adds Hunowu, “we’re now working with local communities to fully protect these corridors through improved agroforestry schemes.”
WCS has recorded the first ever photograph of the endemic Sulawesi woodcock in the wild.
Perhaps the most incredible discovery of all was recording the first ever photograph of the endemic Sulawesi woodcock in the wild. Previously known to inhabit high elevation forests over 1,700 meters, here it is recorded at 1,100 meters from the Duasudara mountain in Tangkoko—a finding that extends its distribution to the easternmost part of the island.
WCS has recorded the first ever photograph of the endemic Sulawesi woodcock in the wild. Credit: WCS Indonesia.
The significance of this exciting discovery was captured by WCS Indonesia’s Communications Manager, Tisna Nando. “I’m from Sulawesi and an avid birder,” she observed. “This is actually my dream bird. I’ve never seen one in the wild, only in guidebooks and 18th century paintings. Now we have this beautiful photo from Tangkoko!”
Sulawesi really is a rich treasure trove of awe-inspiring biodiversity that inhabits the island’s rugged and lush forest landscapes. WCS and MoEF are working together to document these species and fully protect them for future generations. Who knows what surprises our future surveys will uncover?
————————————— Matthew Linkieis Terrestrial Director for the Indonesia Program of WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).