The Glorious Primitive Crane Fly

(Patagonia’s Untold Stories)

Scraping sand grains and pebbles for nutrients, it has wandered the river bed for ten months.  After hiding from predators under submerged rocks it is time to leave the safety of the river behind.

Primitive crane fly (A. gloriosus)  collection site. PHOTO BY R. ISAÍ MADRIZ

Among the rarest species of insects in the world, Araucoderus gloriosus belongs to one of four primitive crane fly species found in South America. Is its rarity a result of what is happening?

Its instincts drive it in search of entangled root mats of marginal vegetation. For that, it must cross a hazardous field of exposed cobblestone. Its body is being pulled against the moist rocks. The unfamiliar sensation of gravity is sobering.

Devoid of legs, it pulls its heavy body forward with its mandibles.

Dawn enshrouds the river bank with a dense mantle of fog. There, not too far from the river’s edge, partially compressed between two fist-sized rocks, the putrid pupal remains of another of its kind is being consumed by scuttle fly larvae; an ominous sign of what lies ahead.

The chaotic arrangement of the rocks and the impoverished diatom film covering them, laid evidence of a violent recent flood, a humbling reminder of the power of the elements.

If it is to survive, the larva must hurry. The morning sun’s rays will soon dissipate the fog, exposing the migrating larva to predators.

It has begun. Hungry ground-dwelling birds scout the surface, while other small passerine birds circle above looking for an easy meal. Deadly parasitic wasps are in search of prey; their young will consume their host from the inside out.

The fourth molt allowed the eyeless larva to develop light-metering primitive eyes, an elemental predatory avoidance tool.

Scanning Electron Micrograph of Primitive crane fly (A. gloriosus) larval head capsule. Photo by R. Isaí Madriz

Halfway from the marginal vegetation, it begins to burrow into the moist sand.

As I observe sitting motionless on top of a large rock I ask myself: Was the drastic behavior change triggered by the continuous sensation of morning rays? Is the larva aware of the constant danger from predators? Perhaps it senses imminent risk of desiccation.

As the day passes by I wait patiently. The night belongs to bizarre creatures. Found only in Patagonia, stoneflies over two inches in length are taking over the night. Emerging in mass, they invade the land in search of a safe place to complete their transformation to adulthood.

At last, the larva reached the entangled root mats of the marginal vegetation. It searches for a secure moist area to begin its transformation. Pupation is the most vulnerable stage in its life cycle.

Its larval skin has been shed. The thin and translucent pupal skin presents a unique view to its internal organs. Highly sensitive long hairs arranged in crucial areas of its body alert of changes in its surroundings.

Safe in the moist microhabitat, its clear skin darkens with the passing days. Within, its organs reorganize for the last time.

A few days pass by and the pupa’s skin is hardened, a promising indication of a successful metamorphosis

Primitive crane fly (A. gloriosus) pupa habitus ventral (left) and lateral (right)view. Illustration by R. Isaí Madriz

High above, recent snowfall failed to remain on the mountaintop. An unexpected flood engulfs the river bank, dislodging the pupa from its shelter. Trapped in the increasing current, the river gradient steepens, as whitewater fills the increasingly narrowing channel.

Unable to move its developing appendages, the pupa relies on buoyancy for survival. It must keep the two respiratory organs on its head above the water or it will drown.

Several hundred yards downstream, in a small foamy pool in the splash zone of a 20ft waterfall, a newly emerged adult male hangs on to the vertical side of a small rock, its discarded pupal skin floats among plant debris. With luck he will spread his wings for the first time.

Nearby, holding on to the exposed roots in the undercut riverbank, a female completes her metamorphosis. At the same time, hanging from the marginal vegetation, camouflaged by their exquisite coloration, males wait for receptive females to take flight.

The male at the base of the waterfall flies away in search of a warmer, drier place away from the cold mist. As I wade through the river, following the male’s path, I feel the soothing sensation of the sun warming my skin. The male’s adult body is being illuminated by the sun for the first time. Does he feel the same calming sensation as I do?

Its dull flight pattern and slow speed diversify, as the morning rays stimulate a graceful aerial dance revealed for the first time before my eyes. I stand motionless in the middle of the river, in awe. The exquisite wing pattern is complemented by an iridescent hue reflecting the sun’s rays. This fly is indeed glorious.

Stacked image of the Primitive crane fly (A. gloriosus) adult hanging from a Magellan’s beech (Nothofagus betuloides) branch. Photo by R. Isaí MadrizR. ISAÍ MADRIZ collecting A. gloriosus larvae. PHOTO BY Gregory R. Curler

In a blink of an eye the magic dissipates. The male is tackled out of the air and onto the overhanging vegetation by a dragonfly several times his size. The predator perches on a broad leaf a few feet away from where I stand. I watch in shock, as it slowly consumes the primitive crane fly, discarding the legs and wings as it gradually devours the thorax. Several thoughts run through my head: How does the fly process pain? Does he? What thoughts would be passing through the fly’s brain? Does he have any?

In the upcoming days little more is revealed of this species’ secretive adult behavior. The population size is a fraction compared to what it was two years prior. With adults becoming increasingly harder to find, their short adult life span and the ever-changing weather make the task at hand troublesome.

With the season passing, the adult population vanishes. It is cold, but the mountaintops have yet to retain any snowfall. Weather fluctuations turn what should be snow into rain, preventing accumulation of snow and consequently scouring the riverbed through the intensifying glacial melts that feed the river. Can this species survive the ongoing climatic challenges, or will it embrace the imminent fate of the bleeding glaciers that it fully depends on?

* The story above is an accurate assemblage of observed field events from 2013­–2018 complemented by a scientific investigation on the species depicted.

Follow Isaí Madriz on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.

Equipment used for this nine month project is courtesy of Fulbright, National Geographic, Iridium, Alpacka Raft, Aqua-BoundBoo Bicycles, Kokatat, Seal Line, Osprey, TentsilePatagonia, Voltaic & Jax Outdoor Gear.

Originally posted 2018-04-21 04:19:01.

Turn the Plastic Tide—for Seabirds, the Environment, and Human Health

When the United States Embassy in New Zealand asks if you’ll do an Earth Day post about impacts of mismanaged waste on the global environment—with a focus on seabirds—what do you do? Quick, call Lilly Sedaghat and Steph Borrelle!

Sedaghat is one of my four fellow Fellows (2017-2018 Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellows, that is), currently studying waste management in Taiwan. Borrelle is a seabird researcher I’ve worked with during my own storytelling project in New Zealand. She’s based in Auckland but will soon head to Canada as a Smith Fellow focusing on mitigation of plastic pollution.

This week Borrelle, Sedaghat, and I had a group video chat about the plastic problem: what’s so bad about the situation we’re in (for seabirds, humans, and the environment), and what we can do about it. Our conversation about this massive topic is massively simplified below…

Lilly Sedaghat, Steph Borrell, and Abby McBride

How does plastic pollution affect humans and the environment? (And how do seabirds fit into that story?)

Plastic is flooding into the ocean with ever-growing speed: around 8 million metric tons of it entered the sea in 2010, projected to increase by an order of magnitude by 2025. Besides being disturbing to think about, that gargantuan amount of nondecomposing material does all sorts of damage. One of plastic’s most insidious roles, Borrelle said, is as a sponge for toxins. When animals eat microplastics and are in turn eaten by other animals, those toxins get passed up the food chain and concentrated in apex predators—like seabirds, and humans.

In some parts of the world, including New Zealand, humans may actually ingest toxin-laced plastics through seabirds. As we speak, there’s a traditional annual seabird harvest happening on the southern New Zealand islands, just off of Rakiura (where I’m stationed right now). About 400,000 sooty shearwaters—known by Māori as tītī—are harvested on these islands every year, Borrelle said. She is working on a project involving the passage of toxins from plastics to seabirds to humans, and has colleagues studying how that phenomenon “is being translated into human health impacts.” It’s an issue particularly in need of investigation, she noted, because these indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by other negative social and economic factors.

Unsurprisingly, plastic can also harm the seabirds themselves. Toxins carried by ingested microplastics can be absorbed into body tissues; many such chemicals are estrogen mimickers that can cause reproductive problems. Larger plastic fragments pose other problems with fatal results—they can damaging internal organs when eaten, or simply entangle and drown wildlife. The biggest problem, Borrelle said, is when parents feed chicks a regurgitated meal containing plastics, which ends up killing the young birds through starvation and dehydration. Zooming out to the population level, a lot remains to be studied. Borrelle is in the midst of a project looking at the factors that might influence seabirds to ingest plastic, to see if it’s possible to predict the risk for species we don’t have data on yet. She has hopes to get more studies running, with the collaboration of groups such as the Northern New Zealand Seabird Trust, to find out more about plastic ingestion and the impacts on wildlife in understudied regions.

It pays to investigate these effects on seabirds, and not just for their own sake. Being long-lived and slow-reproducing animals that spend their lives on the ocean, seabirds are particularly good bioindicators of ocean health. “They’ve been telling us about these sort of plastic pollution levels since the 1970s,” Borrelle said. “New Zealand was one of the first places we found plastic in birds,” specifically in fairy prions washed up on the beach. In the northern hemisphere, she said, a study on northern fulmars is “one of the longest and most extensive plastic ingestion monitoring programs for any species,” but much more study is needed in the southern hemisphere. Seeing Antarctic albatrosses coming from the southern ocean with plastic in them, Borrelle said, brings home the direness of the situation.

What can people do to turn the tide of plastic pollution?

To combat the plastic problem, individual people can take responsibility for their trash—in terms of choosing and using materials, as well as channeling those materials onward to waste management systems. Sedaghat is leading by example: she is currently video-blogging her 12-day zero-plastic waste challenge, and on an ongoing basis is providing resources for people to understand waste management systems and how best to use them (e.g. “7 things you didn’t know about plastic and recycling“).

But in order to navigate that complexity, people have to care—enough to pay attention and change their habits. Borrelle has encountered plenty of resistance while working to make the city of Auckland plastic-bag free. “People like convenience,” she said. “A lot of people tend to resist change when they think it’s going to affect their quality of life.” One way of convincing people that the effort is worthwhile: putting the unsavory effects of plastic into the forefront of public consciousness. Sedaghat is currently working on ways of doing that in Taiwan. “A lot of the challenge has to do with people not visually seeing or being affected personally in their own lives by the results of plastic over the long term: how it affects sea animals, how it affects the human body.”

So educating individuals on consumption, disposal, and effects of plastic is vital. But individuals’ ability to control their own plastic use and disposal depends on many factors, including what products are available to them and what waste management systems are set up where they live. A recycling symbol, Sedaghat notes, is by no means a guarantee that waste is being recycled. In both New Zealand and Taiwan, a lot of “recycling” is currently going straight to the dump (more so now that China has stopped accepting imports of plastic waste), simply because there are insufficient facilities and systems in place. “Recycling companies are only effective if there’s money to be made off those recycled products,” Sedaghat said.

That concept holds true at the production end as well as the disposal end. “Everything comes down to the market, and the price in the market, and what people want in the market,” Sedaghat said. Real change comes from governments pushing against the big industries that have control over the market—which in case of plastics is none other than the petroleum industry. So how can individuals play a role in that change? How can you make a dent in the sea of plastic packaging that greets you in the supermarket, or a city-wide waste system that channels your recycling to the dump?

I asked if community groups provide that much-needed bridge between individuals and the larger political and economic game, and Sedaghat and Borrelle concurred. “Community groups have been the strongest leaders in actually pushing forward these kinds of initiatives,” Borrelle said. She cited the case of New Zealand’s Waiheke Island, where islanders had their own system with “an incredibly high quality of recoverable waste” that was in high demand for overseas buyers.  “That kind of grassroots movement is really important for providing evidence to governments that people actually want to see change.”

Steph Borrelle, Lilly Sedaghat, and Abby McBride

What’s the outlook for the plastic problem?

There are parallels between the anti-plastic mission, Borrelle said, and the crusade against smoking that began in the 20th century. Notably, each of those movements has involved standing up against the marketing and lobbying of a giant industry. “Plastic and oil are intimately related,” she said. “Eight percent if not more of the oil extracted every year is turned into plastic products—so you are fighting against this massive propoganda machine.”

That battle includes dispelling fear-mongering rooted in industry interests. “The idea that you would ‘lose jobs’ is a scary thought, but the reality is that people will adapt to what the market desires,” Sedaghat said. She described a situation in Taiwan where plastic manufacturers—many of them small family businesses—adapted instantly to a demand for corn starch plastics by overseas companies. “They literally just take the same system, same machines, and they just insert the corn-based pellets versus the oil-based pellets into the machines to create the plastics,” she said.  “And they’re able to do that because there’s money that’s made.”

As the smoking status quo has taken decades upon decades to shift, we can expect a similarly prolonged time frame for improvement in plastic waste management. “Social change can be super slow,” Borrelle said, yet it snowballs as people are influenced by the shifting attitudes of their peers. In another parallel, methods that proved effective in changing attitudes about smoking can be applied to plastics. One such strategy for inducing change—particularly at the legislative level—is focusing on human health impacts, which are closely tied to environmental health impacts particularly where plastics are concerned.

Despite the rampant overuse of plastic bags and other single-use products that will never decompose and really shouldn’t be brought into the world by sane humans, it’s important to remember that plastics are invaluable for certain purposes, Borrelle said. Among other things they can offer crucial benefits in medical fields, furnish vital access to clean water and food, and help save the day after natural disasters. But plastic production and use needs to be accompanied by an infrastructure that can actually handle the waste, without the egregious environmental damage we’re seeing right now.

“It’s always more complex than these really simplistic ideas that get bandied about,” Borrelle said. “But if we don’t do anything, the long-term impacts are going to be incredibly severe.”

This has been a very superficial dip into a deep issue that I’m just starting to learn about. To really dive into it, follow Steph Borrelle and Lilly Sedaghat as they each investigate how to turn the plastic tide—for the benefit of seabirds, humans, and everything else.

Originally posted 2018-04-20 03:00:08.

Conservationists divided on Florida’s decision to kill off invasive iguanas

By Erica Cirino

Florida is struggling with a fast-increasing population of invasive green iguanas that began as a small group of released and escaped pets. Thriving in the warm sunshine and humid climate, experts believe hundreds of thousands of nonnative iguanas now call the Sunshine State “home.”

Green iguana in Florida. Photo: Slegrand (Wikimedia Commons)

There, state conservation officials claim they threaten the wellbeing of native animals, including the rare Miami blue butterfly: The green iguana likes to munch on the leaves of the Nickerbean blue plant, the same plant on which the endangered butterfly lays its eggs. Officials also say iguanas are responsible for damage to sewer lines, roads, homes and gardens; and pose a disease risk to humans and other animals.

NICKERBEAN PLANT LEAVES. PHOTO: HOMER EDWARD PRICE (WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

To reduce the green iguana population, the state has taken what a group of scholars and scientists is calling an “inhumane” approach to the issue: A 15-person team from the University of Florida is currently storming across the state, killing wild green iguanas by zapping them with electric cattle guns and smashing their heads against their trucks, boats and other hard objects. The $63,000-project, an attempt to reduce the population of invasive reptiles across the state, is contracted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Opponents to the killing project have sent a letter to the commission urging it consider nonlethal control methods, such as birth control, or at the very least, to investigate more humane methods of killing the invasive species.

“It is important to stress that, as scientists ourselves, we are committed to the health of our ecosystems and we know that this conversation is an important one. Our central point, however, is this: There is no extreme urgency faced in Broward County in 2018 by the behavior of these iguanas and no reasonable justification for the extreme actions being taken,” they wrote. The letter is signed by 20 individuals, including prominent animal behavior and neuroscience experts including Marc Bekoff of the University of Colorado, Denver; and Safina Center Creative Affiliate Lori Marino, formerly of Emory University and currently executive director of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, Inc., and the Whale Sanctuary Project.

Both the letter-writing group and the Humane Society of South Florida contend that no iguanas should be killed, and instead, efforts toward coexisting with the invasive species should be made.

While some take a hard stance against any method of killing invasive species for population control, the extinction of native species might be a more frightening prospect. Take for example the case of invasive rats being introduced to the Hawaiian island of Lehua after hitching rides on ships from other parts of the world. After rats began harming the population of native Laysan albatross and many other species on the island (including native vegetation), wildlife managers dropped poison to kill the rats without harming any other species. As of November 2017, the island has been rat-free and native birds “are flourishing with no further sign of rat attacks on eggs, chicks or adults on nests. Plant leaves and new shoots that were previously consumed by rats are persisting. Many of the plants are in bloom,” according to the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Lehua island, Hawaii. Photo: Christopher P. Becker, Polihale: www.polihale.com (Wikimedia Commons)

“Humans brought those invasives, so humans must address the consequences,” said Safina Center Fellow Hob Osterlund, founder of Kauai Albatross Network, a nonprofit organization working to reduce threats to the survival of albatross and other birds on the Hawaiian islands. “If we do nothing, we are inadvertently condoning the extinction of countless natives. On Lehua Islet in Hawaii last year—before the rat extirpation began—only two albatross chicks fledged.  This year, after the pellet distribution, there were close to one hundred and forty albatross nests. The results tell us what we need to know.”

Like rats, green iguanas, which are native to Central and South America, found refuge in a new land thanks to people. The letter signed by Bekoff and Marino emphasizes the fact that the state’s iguana problem is a result of human carelessness. The letter states that, while they are deemed invasive and possibly harm the native environment, green iguanas “deserve compassionate treatment by scientists just as individuals of non-invasive species do.” Its authors also strongly suggest Florida implement stricter rules about ownership of exotic animals, including iguanas, as pets.

Green iguana in Florida. Photo: Korall (Wikimedia Commons)

“While we overlook our responsibility to the environment with lenient regulations on exotic animal pet trade and the [commodification] of other species, we ask the iguanas to ‘take the fall for us,’” Marino said in a message to one of the letter’s co-signatories, Barbara King, emerita professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. “There is nothing humane or even scientifically-sound about ‘fixing the landscape’ to our liking. But that is exactly what is being done by the University of Florida in the [wanton] killing of healthy iguanas.”

Originally posted 2018-04-19 23:51:15.

Historical Sign of Chesapeake Winter, the Canvasback, Still Brightens the Bay

Hundreds of canvasback ducks on Chesapeake Bay in winter.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.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 an out-of-the-way spot on the Chesapeake.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.

Canvasback dives for dinner.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.

How many canvasbacks on the Chesapeake? Winter waterfowl counts offer answers.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)

Counting canvasbacks

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.

Canvasback hen among drakes.A lone canvasback hen in a crowd of potential suitors. (Photograph: Paul Bramble)

Bird nursery

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.”

Fisheye view of canvasbacks on the Chesapeake.Will the Chesapeake always welcome wintering canvasbacks? (Photograph: Paul Bramble)

Hot times?

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 of the "king of ducks"?The last Chesapeake canvasback? We need to do our part to help the “king of ducks” grace the bay each winter. (Photograph: Paul Bramble)

Originally posted 2018-03-17 17:01:48.

Top 25 Wild Raptors

Wild Bird Trust presents the Top 25 Wild Raptors. Raptors are some of the most awe-inspiring birds. They are strong and agile with excellent eyesight, making them highly adept hunters. This week we feature raptors from all over the globe, from the tiny Falconet of south-east Asia to the mighty Martial Eagle of Africa. The response to this week’s theme was amazing, we were flooded with photographs of magnificent raptors. Thank you to everyone for sharing their photographs and allowing us to appreciate these amazing birds! We will announce next week’s theme this coming Sunday so keep an eye out on the Facebook page.

The American Kestrel is a rather small raptor, standing at 20-30 centimetres tall. Given their size the majority of their prey is made up of insects (Leslie Reagan)Black Kites have become accustomed to living around humans, in some cities in Africa and Asia they can be commonly seen foraging in urban and suburban areas (Carlo Galliani)The Collared Falconet is one of the smallest of the falcon family, standing at just 14-18 centimetres. They are native to south-east Asia, this one was photographed in Bhutan (Sujoy Sarkar)As their name suggests the Changeable Hawk-eagle is highly varied in its plumage. This is a normal morph with a crest but they also occur without a crest and in a dark morph (Atanu Chakraborty)A Lesser Kestrel photographed at Lake Karla (Antonis Tsaknakis)A crestless morph of the Changeable Hawk-eagle perched in a tree (Sukrit Biswas)Adult Bateleurs have bright red bills and legs, this is however a juvenile. Bateleurs are widespread across much of sub-saharan Africa (Sharon Templin)Black-winged Kites eat primarily rodents which they sometimes consume in flight (Subham Chowdhury)Martial Eagles stand at almost a metre high and can take prey up to the size of small antelope (Sharon Templin)The Crested Serpent Eagle hunts from an exposed perch, they take mainly reptiles (Anirban Roychowdhury)The Long-crested Eagle makes use of open forest, they rely on trees to build their nests. This eagle was photographed in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania (Edwin Godinho)This Northern Saw-whet Owl is found only in the woodlands of North America (Tim Nicol)The Red-tailed Hawk builds its nest on a variety of structures like trees, cliffs, cacti and buildings (Adi Ringer)A juvenile Rufous-bellied Eagle photographed in Uttarakhand, India (Vishal Monakar)At first glance you would not say that The Secretarybird is a raptor but Regardless they are adept hunters, stalking through the grass to catch snakes, insects and small mammals (Edwin Godinho)The Greater Spotted Eagle breeds in the forests of central Asia. Due to deforestation in these areas, these eagles are now vulnerable to extinction (Dr S Alagu Ganesh)Spotted Owlets nest opportunistically in cavities, in trees or sometimes in cavities previously used by other birds like mynas and parakeets (Kuntal Das)This magnificent Steppe Eagle is considered endangered due to habitat destruction and persecution (Tauseef Zafer)A White-bellied sea-eagle soars above the Zuari River, India (Bhargavi Gokarna)A close up of a Griffon Vulture in Rajasthan, India (Amit Kumar Srivastava)When courting, Laggar Falcons engage in spectacular display flights (Amit Kumar Srivastava)An Osprey with prey in California. Ospreys are widespread, they are found on every continent! (Adi Ringer)For a vulture, the Himalayan Griffon has a fairly restricted range, occurring in and around the Himalayan mountain range (Sandipan Ghosh)In winter Short-eared Owls can frequently be found roosting in groups of up to 20 (Vipul Trivedi)A White-tailed eagle in the snow in Hokkaido, Japan (Mohit Kumar Ghatak)

Our mission is to build a global community around the freedom and beauty of birds in the wild as ambassadors for the natural ecosystems that they depend upon. They are the music, decoration, and character of every terrestrial habitat on the planet and have been around since the dinosaurs. They are the witnesses and ambassadors of the awesome power of nature. The wide availability of good, cheap optics has opened their world to us for the last few decades. Amazing, affordable DSLR cameras with long lenses are delivering brilliant digital bird imagery to online communities.

We are in a day-and-age during which more bird species are threatened with extinction than ever before. The Wild Birds! Revolution aims to publish the “Top 25 Wild Bird Photographs of the Week” to 1 million people every week by the end of the year. That is a revolution that will change the world! Join thousands of other weekend naturalists, photographers, birders, experts, hikers, nature-lovers, guides, scientists, conservationists and artists that share the thousands of wild bird photographs submitted to the Wild Bird Trust website and Facebook page. Thousands of wild bird enthusiasts are going out every day to photograph our planet’s beautiful birdlife. Pick up your camera, fill your bird feeder, open your heart, and join the Wild Birds! Revolution!!

Edited by Christie Craig, Campaign Manager

Top 25 Migratory Wild Birds

Originally posted 2018-03-16 14:58:34.

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