Friday, December 31, 2010

Birds of Christmas on the Prairie

Christmas Bird Counts get me outside in a season when I am often content to dream of warmer days and more abundant birds. On the 18th of December we conducted the 20th Craven-Lumsden CBC, centring the 24 km diameter circle on the village of Craven.

Starting at daylight, we managed to find 30 species for the day, our second best record. Highlights included sightings of a Hooded Merganser and a Common Goldeneye on an open stretch of the Qu'Appelle River near Craven, both Bald and Golden Eagles flying in the valley, a Snowy Owl along Highway 11 just south of the valley, a single robin in Lumsden, two Golden-crowned Kinglets also in Lumsden, a high of 69 Ravens (including 21 at a single deer carcass), 12 Horned Larks, and a group of 9 American Goldfinches coming to a feeder at an acreage. As well, we recorded 14 mammal species, including 3 coyotes, a least weasel, 120 white-tailed deer, and 29 mule deer.

I left my camera at home for the Craven-Lumsden count, but took it along with me for the countryside portion of the Regina CBC, which was on December 27. We had a warm day for the Regina count and the birdlife responded. We found 21 species in our quadrant alone (the southwest portion of the circle), including Sharp-shinned and Red-tailed Hawks. No pictures of those two, but in the afternoon I took a few photos--some more succcessful than others, but even the fuzzier images convey something of birdlife on the erstwhile prairie.

Driving the backroads south and west of Regina as I have done on this count many times before with my friend Bob Luterbach, it was easy to believe the official statistics declaring that 99.07% of the landscape surrounding this city has lost its native cover. Still, there were some native birds to count, including three Horned Larks. This image shows one on a gravel road, where they often come to consume grit.

The other roadside passerine or songbird we found was the Snow Bunting, for whom the northern plains is a wintering ground. We saw one small flock, including this one:

Here was the only Snowy Owl we found. This first image shows how easily they fade into the white backdrop--especially an adult male like this one.

We had initially flushed it at roadside and then had some difficulty finding it until it swiveled its head, showing the dark spots of eyes and bill.

When it flew, we quickly lost it in the flat light beneath an overcast sky.

Toward dusk we lucked onto a Great Horned Owl a mile west of the city.

After that we saw a Northern Shrike cross the road and land briefly on the top of a tree--too briefly for me to get a photo of anything other than its tail.

Light conditions were much better for the Indian Head Christmas Bird Count on December 30, where I joined with Lorne Scott, Gary Seib and Karen McIver to count birds and mammals for the day. We recorded 19 species of birds in our sector (including American White Pelican and Pied-billed Grebe), covering the countryside at the south end of Katepwa Lake and then to the west of Indian Head, before we headed south to the areas I am most familiar with near our place at Cherry Lake. One of the great surprises of the Indian Head count was the number of Sharp-tailed Grouse we found. The largest flock was along highway 56 north of town where we counted 32 among some hedgerows. Here is one we found at roadside near the town dump where we counted scores of ravens and magpies.

We ended up with a total of 72 Sharp-tails for the day--much better than any of us would have expected. Lorne said the species has been scarce all around Indian Head, and I'd have to say the same for the land I survey near Cherry Lake.

After we counted Blue Jays, Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers and Black-capped Chickadees in Lorne's farm yard--which includes the best bird feeding set-up I have ever seen--we came upon the local group of Ruffed Grouse who show up beneath Lorne's feeders at dusk every day. The five of them were sitting in the Aspen bush along Lorne's driveway. This male was the less common rufous-phase, which became clear once he started to strutt.

You can have some fun looking at the historical results of Christmas Bird Counts,species by species, and region by region by going to this site managed by the American Audubon Society.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Using easements to conserve grassland and wetlands south of the 49th

Redhead ducks coming in to land at a prairie wetland, Trevor Herriot

Good news this week from U.S. Fish & Wildlife, who released a document announcing that they have “developed a conservation strategy for wetland and grassland habitat in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana. Under this strategy, the proposed Dakota Grass-land project identifies 240,000 acres of wetland and 1.7 million acres of grass-land for conservation.”

They are calling it the “Dakota Grassland Conservation Area” and the map they have in the document shows the proposed area running all along the International border where it meets Saskatchewan and eastern Montana and then down along the eastern flank of both North and South Dakota.

The strategy that US Fish & Wildlife say they will follow is to work with private landowners by using “conservation easements across the project area landscape to protect wet-land and grassland habitat from being converted to other uses.”
They predict that without these measures the rate of plowing native grassland and wetlands will continue, and they will lose one-half of the remaining native prairie in the region within 34 years.

Take a good look at the map at the end of this document and imagine how much greater this program could be if it extended across the border into south-western Manitoba and southern Saskatchewan. There is no good reason why it shouldn’t.

How about it, Environment Canada? Can we meet the Americans at the border?

waterfowl in November on Cherry Lake, Trevor Herriot

Friday, December 3, 2010

Loving the Bobolink

Male bobolink nesting in the meadow on the east edge of Cherry Lake.

This week a friend, Joe Kotlar, came across a disturbing editorial written in a farm publication from Ontario, Farmer's Forum, which claims to be "Ontario's Leading Farm Newspaper". The editorial is entitled, "Latest threat to farming — bobolink and biodiversity zealots"

Click on the link above and give it a read, but don't assume that this kind of embattled thinking represents all of rural Canada. Farmers are as diverse a bunch as any other group of human beings. While some enjoy having birds like the bobolink on their hayfields, and will consider taking measures to protect them, there are, unfortunately, those who see any wild animals on their land as a potential threat to their bottom line. It's this vocal group who often succeed in talking legislators into things like coyote and wolf bounties; who oppose any designation of an endangered species and who live in fear of some government employee telling them what they can or cannot do with their land. Between the extremes of farmers who have found a way to make a living by working with nature and those who see themselves in a pitched battle against the wild, there are those who are aware that their land is providing carbon sequestration, biodiversity, water filtration and other "ecological goods and services" (EG&S) that benefit the wider human and natural communities.

And at the same time, they know that these EG&S do not contribute to their short term bottom line and in fact they can make more revenue if they opt for farming practices that reduce habitat, pollute waterways, and increase their carbon footprint. From there it is not far to the assumption that they should be paid or compensated somehow for not choosing to degrade the EG&S their land contributes. This logic will sometimes lead farmers to say things like, "we are providing these EG&S and we should be paid for them."

That has a "truthy" ring, as Stephen Colbert would say, but of course we all know the real truth here: i.e. that it is not farmers but the biosphere itself that is providing the life-sustaining systems we depend upon. Farmers are not entitled to hold the commonwealth of clean air, water, and biodiversity ransom, but neither are the rest of us entitled to the cheap food that industrial agriculture ensures. A cattleman who keeps his land healthy and provides habitat will have higher production costs than those who push their land to minimize costs and maximize revenue. That reality means that today healthier food from healthier land is a luxury that only the wealthy can afford.

But what if there was a way we could agree that EG&S are a collective commons we must all take responsibility for? We would then all begin to share more of the embodied costs of protecting wildness on our farm landscapes, but even more important, we would begin to find regulatory instruments and disincentives that would increase the costs for anyone--farmers, industrialists of any kind, developers--who wants to drain a wetland, bulldoze a poplar bluff, or cultivate native grassland.

preening bobolink

As things stand, we have a cheap food policy that drives our over-heated economies and unsustainable development, and it has fostered a kind of agriculture that pre-selects for farmers who see the bobolink and any creature not increasing yields as an enemy. We all need to help turn this around so that it becomes possible once again for farmers to love the bobolink.

Female and male Bobolink together

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