Thursday, December 31, 2015

Photo Gallery: birds of the Craven and Regina Christmas Bird Counts

Northern Sawhet Owl, courtesy of Laurie Koepke
On a chosen day, each Christmas season, from mid-December to early January, groups of people around North America gather to count the birds in a fifteen mile diameter circle: the Christmas Bird Count or CBC.

I have participated in the Regina CBC since 1985, but in the early '90s I started a Christmas Bird Count centred on the town of Craven. While the number of counters coming out to help at Craven has increased steadily over the years, perhaps the most remarkable change has come from the advent of digital photography.

Bird photography once required thousands of dollars worth of equipment, but recent developments in both digital SLR cameras and the even more affordable super-zoom cameras have made it a lot easier to get telephoto shots of birds.

Here are some photo highlights from the Craven and Regina CBCs. (Thanks to all the photographers who generously agreed to letting me use their photos in this post.)

First Craven, which was held on December 19.

We recorded 37 species (tying our highest record) including a Barrow's Goldeneye (no photo unfortunately), two Townsend's Solitaires and a Spotted Towhee.

Brian Sterenberg took this shot of one of the Townsend's Solitaires--in Phil and Louise Holloway's yard. Louise makes soup for the crew each year and we stop at their place for lunch, watching the many birds at their feeders as we warm up and compare notes for the morning.
Townsend's Solitaire courtesy of Brian Sterenberg

Here is a shot of a large raptor that gave us some trouble initially. It flew over very briefly and I mis-identified it as a dark phase red-tailed hawk.

Once everyone got home and looked at their photos, though, it was clear that we had seen an adult Golden Eagle--the gold on the nape is visible in this image by Brian.

Golden Eagle courtesy of Brian Sterenberg

White-breasted nuthatches occur at acreages and in the town of Lumsden where people feed birds. Thanks to Val Mann for this photo.
White-breasted Nuthatch, courtesy of Val Mann

Another common feeder species is the Blue Jay. Nick Selinger, at 12 years of age, the youngest photographer on the count, took this lovely image.

Blue Jay, courtesy of Nick Selinger
The Northern Shrike, a predatory songbird that eats mice, voles and smaller birds, visits the prairie each winter in small numbers. Thanks to Val Mann for this image.
Northern Shrike, courtesy of Val Mann
It was a redpoll year so we counted several hundred on the Craven CBC. This photo of a nice rosy-breasted male was taken by Nick Selinger.
Common Redpoll, courtesy of Nick Selinger

Fran Kerbs managed to find the only two Great Horned Owls on the Craven count. Here is one of the photos she took.

Great Horned Owl, courtesy of Fran Kerbs

One last image from the Craven CBC--one of the rarest sightings of the day, a Spotted Towhee. This bird should have been hundreds of miles to the south but perhaps had lingered in its breeding precincts after an unusually warm fall and early winter.

Thanks to Hiro Aoki for getting this difficult shot of a very active bird.

Spotted Towhee, courtesy of Hiro Aoki

Now for some photos from the Regina Christmas Bird Count, held on December 27. The compiler, Brett Quiring, is still getting data from counters but he tells me that it was a banner year for raptors. He is predicting a total well over 40 species of birds including several hawks and owls: Rough-legged Hawk, Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, Gyrfalcon, Kestrel, a Cooper's Hawk, Merlin, Snowy and Great-horned Owl. 

On December 30, within "count period," birder Laurie Koepke found another owl species in the city--a Northern Sawhet Owl. Here is a photo she was kind enough to share.

Northern Sawhet Owl, courtesy of Laurie Koepke

But the stars of the Regina count were Rough-legged Hawks. We recorded 37 of them, including 14 in my sector alone. They are congregating near the city outskirts to the south-east, south, and south-west. At one point we pulled our car over along the traffic circle south of Highway 1 and west of Highway 6 and we counted seven in view all at once.

Most were hovering in the air, like this young, hatch-year bird photographed by Brian Sterenberg.

Rough-legged Hawk, courtesy of Brian Sterenberg
Rough-legged Hawks have been recorded during the Regina count before but not in these numbers. They stay in this area when conditions favour their prey--mice and voles. The warm fall and light snow cover may have allowed numbers of these rodents to persist into December in some areas of the province, and the shallow snow cover allows a hover and pounce hunter like the Rough-legged to find them.

Perhaps the rarest bird on the Regina Count was a Red-bellied Woodpecker, which was good enough to show up at birder Dan Sawatzky's feeder just in time for to be counted. This photo was taken by Val Mann.

Red-bellied Woodpecker, courtesy of Val Mann

Driving the back roads we found a small number of Horned Larks south of the city and west. This image was taken by Nick Selinger, who saw his very first Horned Larks that day.

Horned Lark, courtesy of Nick Selinger

My favourite winter songbird is the Snow Bunting. It seems almost to relish the cold and stormy weather for you will often find the large flocks swirling and coursing over stubble fields and pastures like larger snow flakes borne on the wind. We came upon two large flocks, one totaling nearly a thousand birds. Brian Sterenberg took this image, showing one in flight and several on the ground feeding.

Snow Buntings, courtesy of Brian Sterenberg

I will close with this video of a Snow Bunting flock. Though it is a bit rough, it shows some of the restless energy of these birds wintering here in the "south," a relative term because like the Snowy Owls, they breed in the high arctic.

Friday, December 18, 2015

The moon of winter time . . .

This solstice moon, in the dark days of winter, still shines upon the chickadee, the owl, and the redpoll, but St. Jean de Br├ębeuf's old carol--or at least the English translation--is not far off: this is a birdless time of year.

A nesting box in mid-winter, snow on its roof, the entrance filled with nothing but cold air, is a strange figure on the landscape. It looks backward to the summer's rush of life and forward to new tenants in spring, but in the middle--here in the moment when it is hard to imagine either one--all is quiet, stilled to the breath of a sleeping deer mouse.

More than the absence of the swallow and the wren, though, these small domiciles resting beneath December's short light and snow call up thoughts of those who put them up and wait expectantly in spring: the one in the garden, crouched with a hand full of seeds, who stands to follow the small, feathered thing bearing a single twig, heading to the box and stuffing it in the entrance.

I took these photos last week at a farmstead that belongs to my wife's parents. Over the past thirty years, Jack, my father-in-law, has mounted many nest boxes and feeders in and around the aspen bush and garden space surrounding their summer home, near the town of Lanigan.

A civil engineer and road-building public servant as Saskatchewan's Deputy Minister of Highways for most of his career, Jack is now 84 years old, but he tends his acres of vegetables, flowers, trees and sheep's fescue with great love and more energy than most men half his age can muster up on a summer's day.

These are some of the bird nest boxes and feeders he maintains during the growing season. Next summer, when days are long and bright, Jack will be there with his hoe scratching the good earth, watching the bluebirds, wrens, and swallows as they take up residence, and counting the goldfinches at his feeders.

Merry Christmas to all who care for such things--whether you are someone with nest boxes to look after or someone with a thousand acres of native grass to tend.

And a special blessing to the many who have raised their voice this year on behalf of the prairie and the people who take care of it on our behalf.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Working with nature to reduce our emissions

the green gavel goes down to signal Saturday's agreement in Paris

From The Guardian:

After 20 years of fraught meetings, including the past two weeks spent in an exhibition hall on the outskirts of Paris, negotiators from nearly 200 countries signed on to a legal agreement on Saturday evening that set ambitious goals to limit temperature rises and to hold governments to account for reaching those targets.

A child born today might well live to see the year 2100, but at the age of 85 what will her world look like, and how hospitable will it be to human life? Will the average surface temperatures of the Earth be two degrees higher than they are today, four, six?

No one can answer these questions definitively, but the best science we have argues strongly for aiming at the low end of that range. And any chance of that happening will depend on how closely governments around the planet follow the goals set yesterday in Paris.

Those of us living far north of the equator will experience the most dramatic effects of climate change, and regardless of what we do or fail to do, greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere will continue to mess with the thermostat and deliver weather that ranges from dangerous to just plain weird.

Today, a little more than a week away from the winter solstice, cars are splashing through puddles on the streets and roads of Saskatchewan. Katepwe Lake still has thousands of acres of open water playing host to a great gathering of Canada Geese, common goldeneye, and other diving ducks. On the ice edge and in nearby poplar trees, dozens of Bald Eagles are waiting for an easy meal. Last week, local birders counted seventy-two. A spectacle to be sure, but unsettling just the same.
Image courtesy of Fran Kerbs, who counted 72 bald eagles at Katepwe Lake

To meet Canada’s commitment in Paris, every province is going to need to do its part and put a price on carbon and other greenhouse gases—either through carbon tax system, as B.C. and Alberta have promised, or through a cap and trade model, which Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec have announced. Saskatchewan—known as one of the nation’s biggest emitters per capita—has so far done little more than point to its, as yet ineffective, carbon capture mega-project.

But while we wait for that technology to prove that it can make coal “clean”—a dream that many say will never come true—this province has to find its own mix of measures that will, in correct proportion, contribute to our national climate change actions.

To its credit, our government has announced plans to convert our electrical production to fifty per cent solar and wind in fifteen years. A good start, though it would be nice to see some shorter targets in that transition, and a commitment to sustainable and ecologically-sensible siting of wind energy projects.

However, as we wait for some of these important measures to take hold—carbon pricing of some kind and conversion to sustainable alternative energies—there is another side of climate change action for which Saskatchewan is particularly well-positioned.

While engineered carbon capture systems and alternative energies can reduce our emissions through a kind of “technological mitigation,” we sometimes forget that nature provides her own systems of ecological mitigation that we can unleash and encourage in our natural and agricultural landscapes.

Climate change models and estimates of emissions going forward are based on current rates of emissions, including those caused by existing land management practices.

In a province where we have a lot of managed though sparsely populated landscape—forests, grasslands, wetlands, and cropland—even small shifts in land management have the potential to reduce our overall emissions. If we avoid ploughing grasslands, draining wetlands and retain more of our forested cover we will greatly reduce our rate of emissions. And if we restore wetlands and degraded grasslands and plant trees in the right regions we can easily increase the size of the provincial carbon sink and annual sequestration.

prairie wetlands, like this one hosting a Marbled Godwit, can store a lot of carbon

Even smaller changes in land management can help. In an as yet unpublished study on grasslands in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba, Dr. Diego Steinaker of the University of Regina found that an additional 0.8 to 1.4 tons of C/ha can be stored simply by reducing grazing from severe to moderate intensity (personal comment).

Saskatchewan is the right place for this kind of climate change action and much more.

We have thousands of private land managers—farmers, ranchers, and forestry companies—whose everyday decisions determine how much carbon the property they manage will hold and how much it will release. These land managers generally possess the skills and equipment required to introduce new climate-friendly land practices. All that is missing is motivation. As things stand, they have no economic incentive to change, and in fact there are many disincentives.

To shift to land use practices that retain more carbon, we will need market instruments and incentive-based public policy deployed across a range of managed landscapes from south to north in the Province. If we connect the right economic and policy minds with the right carbon and soil science minds, we can find ways to work with the private sector and industry to maximize our natural carbon storage systems without causing undue disruption in our land-use industries.

Along the way, if we are lucky, we might arrive at a province with more diverse and resilient landscapes and more adaptive land managers who can help us all face a changing climate.

North Saskatchewan River

Friday, December 4, 2015

Grass, beef, and climate change—it’s complicated

cattle on the neighbour's land--a shot from inside Caledonia-Elmsthorpe PFRA pasture

“Grasslands restoration has been treated as the most efficient method in achieving carbon restoration and CO2 mitigation."[1] From a paper produced by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s scientists.

Given what is happening in Paris this week, with climate change experts and world leaders gathered to craft a plan on how we might keep global temperatures from rising more than two degrees C. in this century, I thought I would try to say something in this space about the role that grassland management could play in helping us meet that goal. I was inspired in part by what was missing from a discussion hosted by Anna Maria Tremonti on CBC Radio’s The Current a couple of days ago: listen here

After listening to the program, I set off bravely into the slippery terrain of Google land, looking for the latest research on grassland and climate change. Within minutes I had slid down a gopher hole leading to increasingly shrill arguments between those who believe cattle grazing is a net contributor to human-caused climate change and those who believe it has at least the potential to be a climate change mitigator. (Here are two pieces that will give you a sense of the debate’s polarity: one that claims beef production is all bad, and that grass-fed beef is the worst; and one that claims that grass-fed is good for the planet once you look at the whole chain of energy going into feed lot cattle. )

Backing my way out into the light of day, I had to remind myself that I was looking for information on grassland and climate change, not livestock rearing and climate change. But there is no way around the beef production issue. Eight thousand years into the agricultural revolution—now compounded by the more recent and carbon-intensive industrial and information revolutions--we can’t have a meaningful discussion on grassland without talking about the domestic animals that justify its economic life and prevent it from being converted to an alternative economic life—supporting say lentil crops or a subdivision of starter castles.

Cattle and other methane-producing ruminants have jumped, cloven hooves first, into the discussion of grassland and climate change because they are the primary tool for grassland management over much of the planet’s native grass regions. What a livestock producer does with his cattle or sheep on the land will determine the quality of the grass above and below ground, which in turn affects the amount of greenhouse emissions (both methane in farting and belching and the nitrous oxide in manure) the animals produce. More importantly, though, stocking rates and intervals between grazing are crucial factors in determining how much carbon any given pasture captures from or releases into the atmosphere.

Well-managed grassland has been shown to have great potential to store carbon. In 2010 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization declared that “… globally, the potential to sequester carbon by improving grassland practices or rehabilitating degraded grasslands is substantial – of the same order as that of agricultural and forestry sequestration.”[2] 

Though it has yet to yield any public policy, a few people at Ag Canada seem to know this as well—see the quote at the top of this post.

How much carbon can grassland store? In a balanced article on the health and environmental pros and cons of beef in The Washington Post, the author, Tamar Haspel, refers to the work of Jason Rowntree, an assistant professor at Michigan State University who specializes in grass-eating cattle. Rowntree claims that some researchers have managed to sequester three metric tons of carbon per hectare (the equivalent of 3.7 tons of carbon dioxide.)

That sounds promising, but the research was done under ideal conditions and in a system that manages for carbon. Other estimates that have looked at grassland carbon sequestration in a full spectrum of field conditions, land types, and management regimes have arrived at lower estimates per hectare. There is much work to be done here to determine how grassland management can achieve some simple, natural and affordable carbon capture—as opposed to the unproven, complicated, and expensive technology Saskatchewan is using to help pump more oil out of the ground. Let’s hope that there are range ecologists or climate scientists out there right now who are thinking about the potential of restored and well-managed grasslands to store carbon, and who are going to access climate change research funding from the federal government now that we have people in Parliament who are not afraid of science.

In the real world of grassland and livestock production, though, almost no one is managing for carbon. Instead, the increasingly global and consolidated beef market drives producers to manage for the standard agricultural values of maximizing yield and minimizing costs. (It needs to be said though that our best grassland stewards actively resist those pressures by listening to the wisdom of their ranching forbears—make sure you save some grass for next year.)
If we expect otherwise and want grassland management to include carbon sequestration in the mix, we are going to have to put a policy finger on the scales of the marketplace to reward best management practices. That means federal and provincial agriculture programs to help distribute the costs of climate-friendly livestock management among consumers and the public at large. We all benefit from optimal grassland management—whether it is to produce Sage Grouse or sequester carbon—and that makes it as much a public policy issue as forestry or fisheries management. Here’s where we need people with environmental economics background to devise policy that will not be unduly disruptive to the supply side (producers) of things.

Unfortunately, this may or may not be welcome news to ranch families who value their legendary independence and manage their rangeland very well with little interference from regulatory agencies. But the outside world is coming down every prairie trail these days with big ideas and expectations in tow. We have suddenly found ourselves in an age when every decision we make—as consumers and producers—is everyone’s business.

Welcome to the troubled Commonwealth of Planet Earth—where cows do fart and grass do grow.
 The cattle and beaver managing this grassland and its wetlands may be providing us with the cheapest way to store carbon

Further reading for keeners:

Britain’s widely respected National Trust sponsored a study that cuts through all of the vested interests protecting the grass-fed and feedlot sides of beef production and came up with a report showing that “extensive” grass-fed has a definite climate change advantage over “intensive” feedlot beef. Here is a summary that seems wise to me:

“Our findings, based on modelled sequestration data, indicate that the GHG impact of extensive beef production is not as high as calculated by less complete models. This should be reassuring for less intensive farmers faced with the obligation to reduce GHG emissions – it is possible that extensive grassland may in fact be carbon neutral or positive. When the true benefits to ecosystem services and human health are included, extensive livestock production on grassland is reaffirmed as the best use of this resource to produce food for people. On the basis of the issues covered in this report, our stance on beef production is that we will maintain our wider view of sustainability, which embraces optimal agricultural production based on land capability, animal welfare, local food production, and the protection of ecosystem services. We will continue our commitment to GHG reduction by sharing expertise between farmers on carbon-friendly farming, and maintaining our commitment to protect existing carbon-rich soils wherever they occur on our land holding. We will also continue to press for more formal and robust market mechanisms that reward farmers for the wider ecosystem benefits – including reduced GHG production – that extensive, grass-fed beef clearly brings. We need to future-proof all our farming, and a dash for maximised beef production in the face of increasing population demands risks long-term damage to the farmed and wider environment. finding ways to make it pay for farmers to pursue extensive, grass-fed beef systems will become increasingly important.”

And here is a blog post from “Animal Welfare Approved,” which is not an anti-meat, vegetarian organization. It comes out cautiously in favour of grass-fed, but reducing beef consumption--

And, finally, the research referenced in CBC's The Current this week stating  that 
“the livestock sector is responsible for nearly 15 per cent of global emissions – similar to that produced by powering all the cars, trucks, planes, trains and ships in the world.” In their analysis, the authors of say that “Livestock production is the largest source of two of the most potent greenhouse gases, methane and nitrous oxide. Methane results from digestion in ruminant animals such as cows, sheep and goats. Nitrous oxide is produced from manure and from fertilizers used to grow feed crops. Large amounts of carbon dioxide are also produced as forests are converted for pasture or to grow feed crops.”

[1] From a paper produced by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s scientists, Xiaoyu Wang, A. J. VandenBygaart, and Brian C. McConkey. Rangeland Ecology & Management, 67(4):333-343.)
[2] Challenges and opportunities for carbon sequestration in grassland systems: A technical report on grassland management and climate change mitigation. 2010 

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