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A Talk on the Wild Side.

'Tis the Season for the Christmas Bird Count

Tufted TitmouseTufted Titmouse by Bill Thompson/USFWS

On a calendar, Christmas might appear as one day, but if you are a bird watcher, the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is actually a twenty-three day event. The CBC is one of the world’s oldest and longest-running citizen science efforts. Now in its 116th year, the count takes place from December 14 to January 5. It is organized into circles, and each circle counts as many birds as possible on one day, either on a predetermined route, or at their backyard bird feeder. Data is compiled, and used to learn about long-term bird trends. The data collected has been used in many reports and publications, such as the State of the Birds Report, which the Service produces.  

The CBC began on Christmas Day, 1900.  Previously, many families would have Christmas hunting competitions-- known as side hunts--to see who could kill the most birds. Frank Chapman, and early Audubon officer, wanted to offer an alternative. The first count took place in twenty five locations, from California to Canada, counting 90 different species.  

This idea clearly caught on. This was a time of growing awareness of bird conservation, culminating with the signing of the first Migratory Bird Treaty (the Centennial of which the Service will mark next year), so it came at the right time, and touched a chord with people. Today, there are thousands of bird circles, in all 50 states, and twenty foreign countries, with tens of thousands of participants. Last year, over 68 million birds were tallied!

Get Involved
By now, you might be wondering on how you can be a part of this tradition (if you aren’t already). It is pretty simple. You can find a circle near you, and get in touch with the circle lead to find out the day of the count and determine whether you will follow a route or monitor your feeder. After the data is collected, it is sent you your compiler, and added to a report. You are welcome to participate in as many circles as you wish.

Hundreds of national wildlife refuges from Alaska to Texas to New Jersey will be hosting Christmas Bird Counts, so be sure to check out wildlife refuges near you or check out the winter events

"The majority of refuges are within a Christmas Bird Count circle, which is wonderful because CBCs are one of the world's oldest examples of citizen scientists contributing to wildlife conservation," says Mike Carlo, National Wildlife Refuge System birding coordinator. 

Short-Eared Owl on Seedskadee NWR


Short-eared Owl by Tom Koerner/USFWS 

Legendary biologist, founding author of the Golden Guides, and retired 60 year U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee Chan Robbins had this to say about the CBC: “If we had not had a Christmas Bird Count in those early years, we would not have as strong an understanding of long term bird trends. Many of these changes take place gradually.”  

It is a busy season, but if you are considering starting a new tradition that gets you outside, contributes to bird conservation and understanding, and helps build lifelong relationships, consider being part of the Christmas Bird Count this year.

-- Chris Deets, Outreach and Education Coordinator, Migratory Bird Program

New Mexicans Celebrate Acquisition of Double E Ranch

 Double E Ranch
A sunny day exposes the beautiful cliffs on the Double E Ranch Property. Photo by Vanessa Burge/USFWS

Vanessa Burge is an Information Coordinator in the Southwest Region's Ecological Services Program.

New Mexico.  Land of Enchantment.  This “enchantment” can be seen throughout our vast state.  Its rich, diverse landscape supports a variety of habitats from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northern New Mexico to the plains of eastern New Mexico.  As New Mexicans, we value our open spaces and our connection to the natural world.  

The Double E Ranch property in southwestern New Mexico exemplifies this “enchantment.”  The 5,867-acre property, recently acquired through National Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration  settlement funds and State Wildlife Grants funds, represents both natural beauty and open space.  The property provides important riparian and upland habitat for migratory birds and other resident wildlife, and also lies within the Gila River Valley System; one of the Southwest’s remaining free-flowing rivers.  About 3 miles of Bear Creek, a perennial stream that joins the Gila River, runs through the Double E Ranch which further protects the Gila River Valley watershed.  Habitat for two federally protected endangered species, the loach minnow and the Southwestern willow flycatcher, and 4 threatened species: Yellow-billed cuckoo, narrow-headed garter snake, northern Mexican gartersnake, live on the property, and a robust population of Chiricahua leopard frogs inhabits Bear Creek.  

New Mexicans and visitors alike can celebrate this conservation win for our beautiful state.  This acquisition provides long-term benefits to fish and wildlife, our natural areas, and the American public.  ¡Celebramos esta victoria de conservación!  Let’s celebrate this conservation victory!

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Striving for Carbon Neutrality One Building at a Time

Solar array
The Northeast Regional Office Building has the largest renewable energy system on a building fully occupied by the Service. Photo by Liz Dawson/USFWS

Recognizing the conservation challenges posed by a changing climate, we developed in 2010 strategic plan for responding to accelerating climate change. One way we are doing that  is with mitigation, which can involve reducing our “carbon footprint” by using less energy and consuming fewer materials.

So we are proud  that two Fish and Wildlife Service teams were recently honored as winners of 2015 Federal Energy and Water Management Awards for deploying cutting-edge practices that significantly cut carbon pollution, protect the environment, reduce energy costs, and implement innovative practices and technologies. 

One winning team rehabilitated the Northeast Regional Office Building, in Hadley, Massachusetts, in conjunction with the GSA and the building owner.

The LEED gold-rated building features a 108 kW solar PV system -- the largest renewable energy system on a building fully occupied by the Service -- as well as aggressive recycling, two pollinator gardens, innovative HVAC systems, energy-efficient lighting, low-flow fixtures, superinsulation and low-emitting materials to provide a healthy work environment. Its "multiple sustainable strategies avoid at least 354 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year." That's like taking 75 cars off the road. A new plumbing system "will save an estimated 136,425 gallons of potable water annually."


Save the Mint

Shana DiPalma is a GIS specialist and Kristin Barth is an office automation clerk, both at the South Florida Ecological Services Office. They recently got to get their hands dirty for the endangered Lakela’s mint.

Save the mint
Staff members from the South Florida Ecological Services Office joined with partners from Indian River County and Bok Tower Gardens for a day of Lakela’s mint habitat maintenance at a conservation area in Vero Beach. This species faces a high risk of extinction because so much of its habitat has been destroyed and its populations have become so fragmented.

Usually when an email’s subject line mentions a workday get-together, skeptical eyes frantically scroll the page to see if the event is worth the loss of time and productivity.  A recent email distributed to us and other staff at the South Florida Ecological Services Office offering an opportunity to “Save the Mint” ended up being well worth the time.

On Nov. 18, we were among several who participated in our Endangered Species Team’s first annual Save the Mint Team-Building Day.  Our office teamed up with Beth Powell, Indian River County biologist, and Cheryl Peterson, Bok Tower Gardens manager for the Rare Plant Conservation Program, for a day of Lakela’s mint habitat maintenance at the historic Hallstrom Farmstead—a 93-acre conservation area not far from our office in Vero Beach.


Incredible Photo: 55 Bald Eagles in a Single Tree

In the winter, bald eagles often gather at communal roosts where they perch overnight and sometimes during the day when the weather is bad. Communal roosts are usually in large living or dead trees that are relatively sheltered from wind and generally near sources of food. Many roost sites are used year after year and are thought to serve a social purpose for pair bonding and communication among eagles. Because of their importance to eagles, they are protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

A few years ago, our Mountain-Prairie Region shared a photo of an incredible 55 bald eagles in a communal roost. The photo, by photographer Chuck Hilliard, has been shared over 175,000 times and continues to gain interest. We thought we'd ask Chuck a few questions about what it was like to see so many eagles at once. 

55 Bald Eagles in a Single Tree

Chuck Hilliard of Light Of The Moon Photography

Can you describe how you came to find this tree full of eagles?
For many years, I would head up to the Skagit River, in Washington State, to view bald eagles. They gathered there for the salmon run each winter. In 2011, the count really dwindled down, and weather had increased river flows, so that salmon were not reachable for the eagles.


Black-capped Chickadees: Tiny Winter Wonders

Black-capped Chickadee
This photo is copyright (c) 2013 Dave Smith and made available under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

As winter approaches, many birds are headed south. One tiny species, however, will hang around and tough it through the cold months. The black-capped chickadee is a common visitor to refuges and backyards across the Northern states. Weighing in at less than half an ounce, it’s incredible these birds survive freezing temperatures.

Right now (and every autumn) black-capped chickadees stash food for winter. During the summer months, these birds primarily chomp on caterpillars and other insects. In the winter they’ll eat more seeds, berries and even fat from dead animals. Black-capped chickadees would be thrilled to find your seed or suet backyard feeder this winter!

Another way they stay warm is their winter coat. A half-inch layer of feathers keeps black-capped chickadees fully insulated. At night, their body temperature drops 12-15 degrees, reducing their rate of fat consumption by about 25%. This is essential for conserving energy.

If you’re interested in welcoming these birds to your yard, you can offer seed or suet feeders. Providing a roosting box, snags or evergreen trees can offer shelter from harsh elements. Enjoy these delightful winter birds!

Note: Black-capped chickadees are very similar in appearance to Carolina chickadees. This visual comparison should help you tell the difference

Protecting Sea Turtles in Vietnam by Cultivating Local Stewards and Taking on Traffickers

Levi Novey, in our International Affairs Program, tells us about some of the work of the Marine Turtle Conservation Fund

sea turtle
A green sea turtle rests atop a bed of sea grass, one of its primary food sources. Photo by Baillieux Daniel via Flickr under a Creative Commons license

In partnership with the International Union for Conservation of Nature – Vietnam (IUCN-Vietnam), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, through our Marine Turtle Conservation Fund, is cultivating community backing and supporting a volunteer program to monitor and protect nesting green turtles in Vietnam’s Con Dao National Park, home of the most important sea turtle nesting beaches remaining in the country.

Volunteers help Con Dao’s park rangers protect more than 1,000 green turtle nests and about 250 nesting females. With a small staff, the rangers need volunteers to ensure that they can patrol the many remote beaches scattered throughout the Con Dao Archipelago, and protect the sea turtles and their nests from theft and disturbance. More than 500 applicants compete for 50 volunteer positions that rotate every 10 days throughout the peak of the nesting season. Volunteers, including teachers, students and health workers, camp out in remote locations, often a new experience for them.


Acushnet Sawmill Property Transformed into Natural Park

Acushnet Sawmill
The restored Acushnet Sawmill.

The Buzzards Bay Coalition and the towns of Acushnet and New Bedford recently celebrated the restoration of the former Acushnet Sawmill property and opened a milelong walking trail to the public.

Using more than $3 million from the New Bedford Harbor Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration, the coalition purchased the 19-acre commercial sawmill property and transformed it into a natural area, complete with native wildflower meadows, wetlands and the meandering, free-flowing Acushnet River. Trails wind across the property and through the woods to an outlook over the river. One of the mill’s historic buildings has been carefully restored by local vocational students and turned into an environmental learning center. Bald eagles soar overhead and ducks and herring have returned to the river. Since restoring fish passage to the river in 2007, abundance of river herring has increased 16-fold!  

On the blustery November day of the celebration, nearly 200 people turned out to see the property. Community leaders spoke enthusiastically about bringing residents and students back to the river and local natural areas. Speakers also noted that the environmental transformation would help to offset and restore the impacts that have resulted from polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in New Bedford Harbor. As Congressman William Keating said, “The sawmill took natural resources and transformed it into the infrastructure of our economy. We’re now taking revenues from the penalties of the harmful effects of industrial growth and putting it back into natural resources.”

National Wildlife Refuges and Community

 Edith Thompson, on right, with Tamarac Refuge visitor services manager Kelly Blackledge
Edith Thompson, on right, with Tamarac Refuge visitor services manager Kelly Blackledge, who is responsible for environmental education programs each year, among other tasks.

Edith Thompson tells us about her recent job swap, which involved trading Washington, DC, for Minnesota.


For 30 days, from October 26 through November 20,  I acted as project leader at Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota, a position vastly different than my normal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service job in Washington, DC, working as a Congressional and Legislative Affairs specialist.

The job swap with Tamarac Refuge project leader Neil Powers was part of the 10-month Advanced Leadership Development Program that trains future leaders and provides new horizons for Service staff.  It’s a chance to get to places you might not otherwise work.


Atlantic Shorebirds Get International Help

 American oystercatcher with chick. Credit: USFWS
American oystercatcher with chick. Photo by USFWS

There's lots of conservation going on to help shorebirds in the Atlantic Flyway from their breeding grounds in the Arctic to their wintering grounds in the Caribbean and South America. The Atlantic Flyway Shorebird Initiative, in which the Service is involved, has set a goal of increasing focal shorebird populations 10% by 2025.

Take a look at this storymap to see how the initiative is addressing threats to the shorebirds.

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