What Migrating Songbirds Tell Us About Our Planet

Top photo: Kristen Ruegg of the Bird Genoscope Project. Photograph courtesy of Kristen Ruegg.

Songbirds roam every corner of our planet, and as global “canaries in the coal mine” could become our best indicators for the health status of life on Earth. So says Professor Martin C. Wikelski, Director of the Max-Planck Institute for Ornithology at the University of Konstanz, Germany. Wikelski has received numerous grants from the National Geographic Society to study animal migration and is a National Geographic Fellow. Much of his work involves tagging migrating animals with tiny instruments that record their movements by satellite. His latest Society grant goes further: He plans to fit 520 common cuckoos with newly developed tags that report GPS position, acceleration, magnetometer direction, temperature, humidity, pressure, and altitude, over two years.

A key feature in biodiversity are animals that move long distances, Wikelski explains. “They connect habitats in the most diverse areas across the globe.” Because humans have changed so much of Earth’s habitats, long-distance migrants are often the most endangered species. Songbirds in particular, many of which travel between continents every year, have suffered heavy losses as a group. In Europe alone, more than a quarter of songbirds have disappeared over the last 30 years; 380 million songbirds are lost every year.

As part of a year of activities to support birds and their habitats, National Geographic, BirdLife International, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and the National Audubon Society are convening an event featuring two expert panels to explore how technology is expanding our understanding of migration and how creative new solutions are advancing conservation and policy. Watch Thursday’s live stream of the discussions.

Something wrong in the environment

“Similar to the old miners working in dangerous coal mines deep under the earth, we can now use ‘canaries in the coal mine,’ that is migrating songbirds on the global level to alert us to problems of life-threatening biodiversity loss,” Wikelski notes. “The general demise of songbirds should be indicative for all of us that something is wrong in the environment. However, it is often unclear what this ‘something’ is, because we do not yet have the capacity to understand where, when and why individual songbirds die. That is, we do not yet understand where the threats for biodiversity come from throughout the entire migration range of songbirds.”

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Wikelski and his team started studying songbird migration some years ago by tagging common cuckoos with satellite-tracking tags to monitor their patterns from northern Europe into Africa. It was found that European cuckoos migrate through eastern Africa to Angola, winter there, and migrate back through the Congo, western Africa, the Sahara, Italy and  back to central Europe. “But while we have learned a lot about the general patterns, timing and dangers of some good migration through these studies, it is still unclear how common cuckoos across their entire range are migrating, how they are navigating to apparently the same wintering areas, and especially how young cuckoos (or other migrating species) learn to migrate and navigate as they have never seen any of their parents,” Wikelski explains.

How the public can help

Wikelski’s latest project to fill important gaps in understanding of global songbird migration engages the public in conservation efforts by following birds virtually.

The main goal is twofold: “First, we want to understand the diversity of movement and migration patterns across the entire range of one songbird species,” Wikelski explains. This has never been achieved before. “Second, we want the public to participate in the global migration of enigmatic species to understand the dangers and joys of global movements. Because of the GPS accuracy of tracking tags, we can showcase exactly which tree or bush the birds are resting in and even alert local residents that birds from many thousand kilometers away have arrived in their neighborhood to rest or winter.”

The enigma of how young cuckoos learn to migrate

“Scientifically, the most exciting objective is to understand how young cuckoos develop the continental migration routes without ever seeing their parents,” Wikelski says. “This includes questions of navigation, orientation, habitat selection and imprinting, predation avoidance, food-searching, use of air space and winds, as well as interactions with other species in diverse species assemblages during breeding, migration and wintering.

“As an additional benefit for the global public, we will showcase cuckoos as ambassadors for the conditions of life across three continents,” Wikelski adds. “Cuckoos are often located in the vicinity of humans, but only if the local habitat is conducive for breeding and production of other songbird species. Therefore, cuckoo locations will indicate excellent biodiversity conditions across their entire range.”

Bird Genoscape Project

The National Geographic live event also featured the work of the Bird Genoscape Project, which harnesses genomics to conserve migratory birds. More than 50 percent of North America’s migratory bird species are estimated to be declining, and without coordinated conservation efforts many species face extinction, says Kristen Ruegg, National Geographic Society grantee and co-director of the Bird Genoscope Project.

“For migratory birds, knowledge of connections between breeding, wintering and migratory stop-over areas is essential for the development of effective conservation strategies, but such information has historically been difficult to attain,” Ruegg says. “To address these challenges, the Bird Genoscape Project uses the latest genomic methods to: 1) map the migratory routes of North American birds using DNA from feathers and 2) predict the impacts of future climate change on the ability of populations to adapt. Combined with other life history data, this fine-grained information enables conservation scientists to target limited resources to the places in the annual cycle where they are most needed.

“We are currently constructing population-specific flyway maps and mapping climate adaptation in 14 species of migratory birds, ranging from endangered to common, with plans to expand our efforts to additional species of concern over the next decade.

“Working with conservation groups and decision makers such as the National Audubon Society, Federal and State agencies, and renewable energy companies, our goal is to translate our results into action to help stem migratory bird declines. In my presentation, I describe recent discoveries that we have made from mapping population specific migratory routes and climate adaptation in the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and how they are helping guide to conservation efforts.”

Year of the Bird is a 12-month public campaign initiated by National Geographic, the National Audubon Society, BirdLife International, and Cornell Lab of Ornithology, along with more than 175 supporting organizations from across the birding and conservation communities. The Year of the Bird aims to celebrate the beauty and importance of birds and nature, and to inspire people around the world to take action to help them. As we mark the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, pivotal U.S. legislation signed in 1918, we recognize birds as a symbol of nature’s interconnectedness and look to the next hundred years of caring for the planet we share.

The migration event, titled “Taking Flight: Bird Migration and Conservation Across Hemispheres,” helps to kick off the Year of the Bird by focusing on the challenges and solutions for conservation policy through the lens of birds.

Migrations and Tech panel:

  • Andrew Farnsworth – Research Associate, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
  • Martin Wikelski – NGS Fellow
  • Gary Langham – VP and Chief Scientist, National Audubon Society
  • Kristen Ruegg, NGS grantee – Bird Genoscape project

Conservation in Action panel:

  • Amanda Rodewald – Conservation Science Director, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
  • David Yarnold – President and CEO, National Audubon Society
  • Jonathan Baillie, Chief Scientist and SVP for Science and Exploration, NGS
  • Patricia Zurita, CEO of BirdLife International

Moderator (for both):

  • Laura Helmuth – Health, Science and Environment Editor at The Washington Post

    Painting of various migratory songbirds whose numbers are declining. Illustration by H. Douglas Pratt.

Originally posted 2018-02-15 04:56:39.

Top 25 Wild Birds Against Spectacular Landscapes

Wild Bird Trust presents this week’s Top 25 Wild Bird Photographs Against Spectacular Landscapes. We were truly blown away by the amazing landscape and habitat shots that were submitted this week!  Birds are excellent indicators of habitat quality, when habitats are degraded only the generalist and opportunistic species will remain in the area, others will move elsewhere. But when habitats are intact and undisturbed, specialist and sensitive species flourish and there will generally be a greater diversity of birds too. When we value birds and work to conserve them, these beautiful landscapes remain intact too!

To be in the running for next week’s Top 25 you can submit photographs on the Facebook page with species, location, and photographer as the caption. Also follow us on Twitter and Instagram for even more amazing bird photographs. If you would like to receive the Top 25 in your inbox every week, all you need to do is subscribe to our newsletter via our website!

American Kestrels perched alongside the Andes mountains of Ecuador (Melissa Penta)Bar-headed Geese eat a wide variety of aquatic vegetation, they are even able to eat plants that are considered poisonous, such as Lily of the Valley plants. This spectacular photograph was shot at the Tso Moriri lake in India (Ria Mukherjee)A pair of Common Cranes take flight on the arid plains of Little Rann of Kutch, India (Soumitra Ghosh)A study has shown that the diet of Eurasian Curlews differs between males and females. In France males were documented to eat crabs mostly and females preferred bivalves (Christian Bagnol)A Common Stonechat in Assam, India. These stonechats usually hunt insects from perches, frequently favouring one particular perch (Ashish Malhotra)A group of Greater Flamingoes take flight at sunset in Little Rann of Kutch, India (Rupa Mitra)A Greater Spotted Eagle photographed at the Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary, UAE. These eagles are considered vulnerable to extinction mainly due to their wetland, forest and meadow habitat being degraded (Jobin J Valiyaparambil)A Grey Crowned Crane scans the landscape at Lake Victoria in Uganda (Elaine Henley)The Grey Heron is fairly common across Africa, and much of Eurasia, largely because they are able to use a wide variety of habitats, using any shallow waterbody available (Satyajit Ganguly)A Northern House Martin skims the water on a river in Scotland. These birds breed on buildings and rock faces in Europe and western Asia (David Main)A Common Kestrel scouts the landscape from atop a dune in the United Arab Emirates (Jobin J Valiyaparambil)The Black-rumped Flameback specialises in eating ants and are known to break into the nests of Weaver Ants- a type of ant that makes nests out of kitting together leaves (Anil Goyal)Red-crested Pochards in flight against the backdrop of the Himalayas (Anirban Roychowdhury)A Lilac-breasted Roller perched above the plains of the Maasai Mara, looking for prey (Ganesh Rao)A Little Egret flying over the Sea of Galilee in Israel. Contrary to what the name suggests, the sea of Galilee is a freshwater lake, ideal habitat for these egrets (John Parkinson)A Northern Pintail takes flight in Mangalajodi, India (Giridhar Vijay)A congregation of Northern Shovelers and Spot-billed Ducks in Pune, India (Anvita Paranjpe)A Common Ostrich photographed in Kenya by Ganesh Rao. In wetter areas these birds are quite sedentary but in arid areas they will move great distances to find food and waterA group of Painted Storks stands along the Chambal River, India (Ashok Appu)A Chukar Partridge photographed in Ladakh, India, these partridges are distributed across central Asia, they also have a thriving feral population on Robben Island, a small island off the coast of South Africa (Ria Mukherjee)Two Atlantic Puffins survey the landscape on Skomer Island, Wales (Suranjan Mukherjee)A Black-necked Stork photographed in the Kaziranga National Park, India. These birds prefer undisturbed wetland habitat, and protected areas like these are important for this species (Ahan Roy Chowdhury)A White stork crosses the skies against a magnificent backdrop of the mountains of the Sinai Desert, Egypt (Carlo Galliani)A White-fronted Chat on a beautifully lichened rock in Tasmania, Australia (Radhakrishnan Sadasivam)Eurasian Oystercatchers fly out to sea, off the coast of England. The population of Eurasian Oystercatchers is declining, largely because they have to compete with fishing vessels for food (Suranjan Mukherjee)

To be in the running for next week’s Top 25 you can submit photographs on the Facebook page with species, location, and photographer as the caption. Also follow us on Twitter and Instagram for even more amazing bird photographs. If you would like to receive the Top 25 in your inbox every week, all you need to do is subscribe to our newsletter via our website! 

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 Wild Bird Photographs of the Week #124

Originally posted 2018-02-02 20:06:52.

Just a Seagull? Nope.

There’s no such thing as a seagull, according to certain pedantsHow can that be?

Because it’s a gull—actually, one of about fifty gull species living in habitats all over the world, oceanic and otherwise. They range from the size of a dove to the size of an osprey, with all sorts of differences in appearance and behavior. Three of those species live here in New Zealand—including the river-dwelling black-billed gull, the most endangered gull in the world. When I took my sketchbook and went looking for nesting gulls, I found some nests inches from the ocean and others 50 miles inland, which is about as far from the coast as you can get around here.

So…what’s wrong with calling a sea-affiliated gull a seagull? Sigh. Nothing, I guess. But by using more precise terms you can help discourage a tragic misconception: that there’s one kind of seagull, and it’s a rat with wings. In a single week I’ve watched a motorist drive casually into a flock of endangered black-billed gulls resting on the grass, cringed while a recreational fisherman traipsed through one of their breeding colonies on a river island, and heard stories about people shooting them for fun. They’re just seagulls, after all—they’re everywhere, all making a nuisance of themselves. Right?

Nope. Endangered or otherwise, each gull species is unique and deserves to be recognized as such, in my humble opinion. So without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to New Zealand’s gulls.

RED-BILLED GULL (Larus novaehollandiae)

The dainty red-billed gull is known as tarāpunga or akiaki in Māori. It’s the most common gull on New Zealand’s shores, so some people think of it as a pest. But in fact its population has been plummeting in response to things like invasive predators and changes in krill abundance caused by climate fluctuation. I think the red-billed gull is one of the dandiest birds around: sparkling white, with brilliant red accents and an attitude well out of proportion with its size.

BLACK-BILLED GULL (Larus bulleri)

The black-billed gull also goes by tarāpuka. Closely related to the common but declining red-billed gull, it’s of similar size and spunk but with a more elongated body, a more attenuated bill, and more of an emo expression. It nests in dense colonies on river islands and is the most endangered gull in the world. I generally avoid talking about politics, but I voted for the underappreciated black-billed gull in the New Zealand Bird of the Year elections. More about this gull in my next story.

SOUTHERN BLACK-BACKED GULL (Larus dominicanus)

The southern black-backed gull is found all over the southern hemisphere, where it’s usually known as the kelp gull. Here in New Zealand it goes by karoro or simply “black-back”. Opportunistic scavengers, black-backed gulls have gotten more common in conjunction with human impacts on the landscape. Even among bird aficionados they have a villainous reputation, thanks to their habit of dining on eggs and chicks. But just look at how cute that black-backed gull family is…

In the next episode I’ll take you to a special gull colony I stumbled on. Meanwhile, remember: good or bad, a gull is never just a seagull.

Abby McBride (Photo: Edin Whitehead)Photo by Edin Whitehead

Abby McBride is a sketch biologist and Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow. She is currently sketching seabirds and writing stories about extraordinary efforts to save these threatened animals in New Zealand, the “seabird capital of the world.” Here are some ways to support seabird conservation.

Originally posted 2018-02-01 02:26:32.

Wild Birds with a Splash of Colour

Wild Bird Trust presents this week’s Top 25, Wild Birds with a Splash of Colour. Birds are amongst the most colourful in the animal kingdom. Given that having colourful plumage makes you more vulnerable to being spotted by predators it begs the question, why are so many birds colourful? The age old theory is that colour in birds evolved due to sexual selection, females, or in some cases, males pick a mate with brightly coloured plumage as it signals that the individual is healthy and fit. Whatever the evolutionary drivers were, today we can appreciate the amazing diversity of bright colours in the bird kingdom!

If you would like to submit photographs for our Top 25 contest next week, keep a eye on the Facebook page, the next theme will be announced on Sunday. Then you can simply submit your photograph to the Facebook page with species, location and photographer as the caption, good luck!

The male and female Blue-throated Barbet are both brightly coloured. Studies show that in these cases, it is thought to be an adaption for females in monogamously breeding birds. The females of these species are thought to be colourful as they need to compete for males (Ganesh Rao)The European Goldfinch is primarily a seedeater, their beaks are perfectly designed to pick seeds from flowerheads (Suranjan Mukherjee)This Anna’s Hummingbird is a good example of colour sexual dimorphism, driven by sexual selection. The males have a metallic purple throat but the females lack this. During the breeding season the males display energetically to attract females  (Sutapa Karmakar)A Black-lored Tit photographed in Sattal, India (Deepak Sharma)This beautiful Hyacinth Macaw is vulnerable to extinction, mainly due to capture for the pet trade and habitat loss. A number of conservation actions have been put in place, including artificial nests and raising awareness among cattle ranchers (Sharon Templin)The Indian Peafowl has extreme sexual dimorphism. The males have elaborate tails and plumage which attracts the females to their harems (Vishwas Thakkar)The Atlantic Puffin has a beautifully colourful and ornate bill. Sadly they are vulnerable to extinction due to overfishing and disturbance at nesting sites (John Parkinson)During the non-breeding season Long-tailed Broadbills are highly sociable, travelling in large groups of up to 40 birds (Deepak Sharma)Much like flamingoes, Painted Storks stir up the mud so as to disturb prey (Vishesh Kamboj)Red-and-Green Macaws displaying their technicolour plumage in Peru (Antonis Tsaknakis)The Venezuelan Troupial is native to Venezuela, Colombia and surrounding islands, this vibrant bird was photographed in Puerto Rico (Sonia Longoria)The Red-whiskered Bulbul has charming red patches on the ear coverts (Subham Chowdhury)A colourful male Red Avadavat alongside a drab female in Sultanpur National Park, India (Anirban Roychowdhury)The Red-billed Leiothrix is native to eastern Asia but has also established feral populations in Hawaii, Japan and Europe (Suranjan Mukherjee)This Silver-eared Mesia, photographed in Malaysia, is closely related to the Red-billed Leiothrix featured above (Arun Samak)The beautiful iridescent plumage of the Rüppell’s Starling is an example of structural colouration in birds. This is formed by structures in the feather barbules that refract different lights depending on what angle you look at it from (Edwin Godinho)The Shining Honeycreeper can be found in the humid forests of central America, this strikingly blue male was photographed in Panama by Owen DeutschOnly the male Siberian Rubythroat has a red throat, the female’s throat is white. Many birds have colourful throat patches, it is not clear why but the throat region is definitely a visible place to display colourful plumage! (Swarnava Nandi)The Superb Starling is fairly common across East Africa, this stunning individual was Photographed in the Serengeti, Tanzania by Edwin GodinhoThe White-capped Redstart also goes by the name White-capped Water-redstart as they are primarily found along streams and canals (Gaurav Budhiraja)White-breasted Kingfishers are generally diurnal but during India’s monsoon season they can be seen foraging at lights during the evening (Tandel Neel)It is rare to come across a bird with plumage as vividly purple as the Violet-backed Starling! (Shantharam Holla)The strikingly iridescent Himalayan Monal is the national bird of Nepal (Shivayogi Kanthi)The Crimson Sunbird feeds on nectar and insects, they are known to ‘rob’ flowers of their nectar by piercing the base, instead of reaching into the flower (Sudhir Kadam)A group of Greater Flamingoes in the snow in Camargue, France (Christian Bagnol)

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 Backyard Birds

Originally posted 2018-02-23 17:46:05.

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