6 / 23 / 11
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Bird Monitoring Funding Support from the Great Northern Landscape Conservation Cooperative

The Montana Bird Conservation Partnership and the emerging Idaho Bird Conservation Partnership have been awarded $65,000 for implementation of bird monitoring on private and riparian lands in Bird Conservation Region 10. Funds will be used to assess bird distribution and abundance on these traditionally under-sampled lands. These data will also be used by MBCP partners for bird-habitat modeling and development of Decision Support Tools. Support from the GNLCC will allow us to fill gaps in existing data identified by the Intermountain West Joint Venture, Montana Bird Conservation Partnership, and other leaders in conservation science in the Northern Rocky Mountains. Funds will also be used to strengthen a science-based Idaho conservation partnership to increase communication and collaboration among bird conservation partners in Idaho and the region.

This is the second year of funding from the GNLCC for this work. In 2010, the MBCP was awarded $35,000 for bird monitoring in the Montana portion of Bird Conservation Region 10. Field sampling is ongoing and anticipated to continue through at least 2015. For more information on our Integrated Monitoring by Bird Conservation Region project, click here. >>

6 / 23 / 11
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Funding Award from the Northern Great Plains Joint Venture

The Montana Bird Conservation Partnership has been awarded a $5,000 grant from the Northern Great Plains Joint Venture to support partner participation and meeting costs. The MBCP provides a forum for coordination within and among the Joint Ventures to support all-bird conservation under the major bird initiatives and the Northern Great Plains, Prairie Pothole, and Intermountain West Joint Venture Implementation Plans. The enhanced capacity provided through meeting support from the NGPJV will support our most active participants and attract new and welcome partners from within the conservation community, such as land trusts, conservation district councils, and other non-governmental organizations.

Travel support awards will be available for eligible partners through this grant for our next MBCP meeting in fall 2011. Details will be forthcoming.

6 / 23 / 11
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Notes from the field

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Notes from the field

                Our warm, golden summer has lingered in to October this year.  The “field” for me this past month has been my front deck overlooking Helena’s valley.  Large flocks of Sandhill Cranes who patrolled the neighborhood all summer with their boisterous calls have abruptly left.  The Red-tailed Hawks who nested in an old cottonwood 100 yards from our house are gone, replaced by dark, more mysterious looking red-tails – likely our breeding pair’s northern relatives.  The kingbirds and swallows, meadowlarks and sparrows that aggregated in large, chaotic groups just a few weeks ago have quietly slipped to the south.  It is strangely quiet.  Luckily, Canada Geese and Mallards are still drawn to the waters of Lake Helena.  At dusk, silhouetted groups glide to the water, sometimes quietly, sometimes announcing their arrival noisily.  And the Great Horned Owl family has yet to disperse, calling to each other in the evenings. 

It is still warm enough to site on my front deck most days, but I feel a bit lonely.   I miss my summer companions.  Then a common raven drifts by, announcing her presence with a loud squawk and I am reminded that I will have company through the winter.  [October 4, 2011]

            

It is late May 2011. Rivers across the state have jumped their banks, basements and homes are flooded, trucks are stuck, roads are impassable, and children are riding their bikes down swamped streets. But the birds have returned to Montana, many are attempting to nest. Field work for our monitoring and research projects should be well under way. If only we could get to our survey sites!

Despite these challenges, partner biologists have been out counting Great Blue Heron colonies. We started in April with cooler than average temperatures. There herons were here, hunkered down in their nests suspended high in trees. We were optimistic that we would see the birds better before the cottonwood’s leaves came out. But the rainy, windy weather hampered observations.

Finally, a warm stretch of weather arrived in early May. Leaves popped from their buds, obstructing our views, but encouraging us nonetheless. We were out in force, counting nesting herons from helicopters, fixed-wing planes, and roadsides. Before this latest round of storms, we had counted nests at over 100 heron rookeries across the state. Now, we await drier roads and warmer temperatures to complete our surveys for these gangly, powerful, somewhat prehistoric-looking birds.

 

 

6 / 23 / 11
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Awaiting the Trumpeter’s Return

(Reprinted from Montana Outdoors July-August 2010)

Over the past six years, 140 trumpeter swans have been reared and released in the Blackfoot Valley. Now the majestic birds face power lines, illegal shooting, and other dangers as they try to return home.

By Nick Gevock

Louie Bouma didn’t know it at the time, but his effort to save four orphaned trumpeter swan eggs would launch a waterfowl conservation movement. The owner of a post and pole yard near Lincoln had watched a pair of the white, long-necked birds set up a nest at his pond in spring 2003. He was used to seeing lots of ducks and geese, but no nesting swans had been documented in the Blackfoot Valley since the late 19th century.

Bouma’s son found the female swan dead in the driveway early one morning in late May. The power was out at the post and pole yard and the office clock had stopped at 1 a.m., leaving little doubt that the swan had hit a power line.

Undeterred by the loss, Bouma retrieved four eggs from the nest and kept them warm. Within hours, local volunteers and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks biologists transported the eggs to the nonprofit Montana Waterfowl Foun­dation near Ronan. There, cared for by a pair of surrogate trumpeter swans owned by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), three eggs hatched.

Tom Hinz, FWP Montana Wetlands Legacy Partnership coordinator, says that after the fledglings grew into juveniles, they were returned to Bouma’s pond. That’s when he and other wildlife biologists began thinking about the trumpeter’s place in the Blackfoot Valley. “The male spent months with them, and eventually they flew out of there and into history,” Hinz says. “That really inspired us and the U.S. Fish & Wild­life Service (USFWS) to work with people like Louie and other folks in the Blackfoot Valley to bring these birds back.”

Killed for fashion
Though no estimates exist of historical trumpeter swan numbers in the Blackfoot Valley, Meriwether Lewis wrote of the big white birds while passing through the area in 1806. Early Montana settlers made note of the swans, which, weighing over 20 pounds and with a wingspan of nearly 7 feet, are North Am­erica’s largest waterfowl. Greg Neu­decker, a biologist with the USFWS Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, says these and other historical accounts indicate the wetlands-rich valley held a healthy population that returned each summer to nest. But that was before the white-feathered hat became a fashion staple of Europe.

Beginning in the late 1800s, trumpeter swan populations declined across North America and were eliminated from the Blackfoot Valley. Settlers shot the big birds for food, but it was the commercial harvest of swans to supply the millinery trade in Europe that depleted the population to near extinction. As they did with egrets and herons killed in the South, U.S. exporters bundled tens of thousands of dried swan hides for shipment across the Atlantic to adorn hats for fashionable ladies. Slow to take flight, trumpeter swans were particularly vulnerable to market hunters. Not until 1916 did international law stop trade in swans and other birds among countries, ending the widespread slaughter. Un­fortunately, the regulations came too late to save most trumpeter swan flocks that once graced wetlands like those in Montana’s Blackfoot Valley.

Protection from commercial harvest helped the Rocky Mountain trumpeter swan population, which spans both U.S. and Canadian nesting grounds, to slowly in­crease. The population today is nearly 5,000 birds. Roughly 80 to 90 percent are Canadian swans that nest north of the international border. Many pass through Mon­tana during spring and fall migrations, but only a few stay here to nest. (Twenty-one pairs nested in Montana last year—including five in the Flathead Valley as a result of the CSKT’s successful reestablishment of a flock there, eleven in the Centennial Valley around Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, and the rest at scattered sites.) Other than the pair Bouma found at his pond in 2003, no trumpeters have nested in the Blackfoot Valley.

In 2004, state and federal biologists devised a plan to restore trumpeter swans to the Blackfoot. The first step was for biologists to inventory the valley’s abundant wetland habitat. They documented 30,000 wetlands—ranging from shallow puddles that warm early in spring to deeper marshes rich in nutritious vegetation. “That rivals the wetland density you find in the prairie pothole landscape of the Dakotas, except it’s surrounded by mountains,” Neudecker says.

The most important habitats for trumpeter swans, says Hinz, are basins of clean water with abundant submergent vegetation and nesting security. He calls swans “aquatic horses” because the birds graze all day to sustain themselves. A young swan puts on 12 pounds in just a few summer months while developing from a hatchling to a bird that flies south for the winter. “Water quality is critical because sunlight needs to get through to reach the plants,” Hinz says. “A muddy, murky pond just won’t work for swans.”

The habitat review also showed the valley contains many ponds with islands or muskrat lodges where swans can nest secure from foxes and other roving predators. The birds also need to stay clear of humans. “In other states and in Montana there have been instances where people went up to examine a nest—they didn’t really bother the birds; they just looked—and the pair abandoned the pond and never nested there again,” Hinz says. “Trumpeter swans aren’t like Canada geese on the golf course. They are very wild creatures and usually don’t tolerate a lot of human activity.”

After the wetland inventory, biologists established a goal of seven nesting pairs for the Blackfoot. In 2005, they began releasing birds provided by the Wyoming Wetlands Society in Jackson, starting with 10 individual birds. “The idea is that a swan is likely to return to where it first took flight,” says Hinz. “But even more important, after it returns the following spring it then stays at that site and molts [drops old feathers and grows new ones]. That takes several months, and as it hangs around a wetland waiting until it can fly again, the bird develops an affinity for that place. Then, hopefully, it returns in later years and nests there.” Unfortunately, things haven’t worked out that way in the Blackfoot—yet.

Returning but not nesting
So far, says Hinz, none of the 140 swans released into the Blackfoot Valley over the past six years have returned and nested. A few pairs containing either one or two previously released birds have come back, but none have laid eggs. “On the one hand that’s discouraging,” says Hinz. “On the other, the fact that some are coming back is a hopeful sign. That’s how restorations like this have succeeded in other parts of the West.”

The whereabouts of most of the released birds is a mystery. Fitted with highly visible identification bands around their necks, some trumpeters have been spotted in parts of western Montana, as well as in Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, and southern Alberta. It’s likely, however, that most of the released birds have died. “Trump­eter swans often fly a lot lower to the ground than other waterfowl, and they don’t seem to see obstructions like fences and power lines,” Hinz says. Others die from parasites and predators, and a few are shot every year by hunters mistaking them for similar looking (and far more abundant) tundra swans, as well as by miscreants who shoot them for no good reason. Despite the setbacks, however, biologists aren’t discouraged.

Hinz says power companies have been willing to hang reflectors from power lines in areas used by swans. Though some swans still fly into the wires, the fluttering reflectors have reduced mortalities. He and other biologists are also working with property owners to put reflectors on fences and other obstructions that could pose a hazard to flying swans.

Because tundra and trumpeter swans are virtually indistinguishable in flight, waterfowl hunters—especially at Freezout Lake, two hour’s drive northeast of the Blackfoot Valley—are urged to learn the distinct difference between the two species’ calls. Tundras sound much like barking dogs, while trumpeters have a lower-pitched, nasal, slightly hoarse hurp or uh-OH call. Trumpeter swans are not federally threatened or endangered. It’s legal to hunt them in the western half of Montana (the Pacific Flyway), though not elsewhere in the state.

Neudecker is not surprised that no swans have nested in the Blackfoot Valley so far. It takes trumpeters three years to reach sexual maturity, which means the release program is only now reaching the point where some of the first released birds could come back and successfully rear young.

That will be the turning point, Hinz says. Swans mate for life—unless one of a pair dies—and the young are prone to return to their nesting grounds year after year. If multiple nesting pairs produce young, there’s a good chance trumpeters will reestablish in the Blackfoot. “That’s why we’re stepping up public awareness efforts about protecting these swans,” he says. “The future of the Blackfoot flock rests with this handful of migrating adults. The loss of just a few breeding swans from power line collisions could delay the restoration by years.”

Neudecker says he and other biologists have always known the restoration wouldn’t occur overnight, but they’re confident it will occur. “Slowly but surely, trumpeter swans are coming back to the Blackfoot,” he says. “You want it to happen immediately, but it’s really a long-term process.”.

Nick Gevock is a freelance writer in Butte and a reporter for the Montana Standard.

 

6 / 23 / 11
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State of Montana’s Birds

Hundreds of thousands of Snow Geese stage at Montana’s Freezout Lake each spring on their northward journey. The Long-billed Curlew, an icon of the American West, proudly performs its undulating breeding flights across our extensive grasslands. Male Sage Grouse dance and drum for mates each spring on leks scattered throughout our sagebrush landscape. Common Loons return each spring from the coasts to breed on the cool, deep lakes of northwestern Montana. Black swifts carefully lay a solitary egg on a rocky ledge hidden behind our waterfalls. Hundreds of Golden Eagles and other raptors migrate each year along the Rocky Mountain Front. These are just some of the wonders of Montana’s bird life that are appreciated each year by our residents. In fact, Montana boasts the largest proportion of resident birders in the nation – 40% of Montana’s citizens engage in bird watching activities.

Montana’s spectacular and diverse assemblage of birds is also the foundation for an active and engaged bird conservation partnership working to maintain our legacy of wild places and wildlife. At the national level, scientists are characterizing patterns in bird populations to help guide conservation action. Recently this analysis has been translated to the State of the Birds Report series (http://www.stateofthebirds.org). Below we summarize some national trends that are relevant to Montana and are guiding many actions of the Montana Bird Conservation Partnership.

Grasslands

Grasslands are home to our Nation’s fastest declining birds. Common birds, such as Western Meadowlarks and Bobolinks, are declining by 38-77%. Those birds that winter in Mexico are showing the steepest declines, up to 68-91%. This includes Sprague’s Pipit, Lark Bunting, and McCown’s Longspur. Popular game birds such as Sharp-tailed Grouse and Northern Pintail that require grasslands for some or all of their life cycle are also declining. Climate change is expected to exacerbate these trends. Most of these lands are in private ownership, suggesting landowner incentive programs and conservation easements might provide the greatest conservation opportunities.

Aridlands

Aridlands, which include sagebrush landscapes in Montana, are facing loss and degradation of habitat for a unique suite of birds. Approximately 45% of sagebrush habitat has been converted to other uses, primarily agriculture and urban development. This has led to declining populations in 76% of aridland-obligate birds. In Montana, this includes Greater Sage Grouse, Brewer’s Sparrow, and Sage Sparrow. Climate change is expected to result in warmer, drier conditions for aridland birds. Nationally, most aridlands are in public ownership; however, in Montana much of our sagebrush habitat is in private ownership. Conservation strategies usually differ by land ownership and may need to be regionally-based for this community type.

Forests

Forests are key to the future of birds and our natural resources. Although up to 33% of forest-breeding birds are showing declines, populations of western forest-breeding birds tend to be relatively stable. A few exceptions are those birds with small ranges or specialized habitat requirements such as White-headed Woodpeckers, Pinyon Jay, Plumbeous Vireo, and Olive-sided Flycatcher. Forests will likely be more resilient to climate change and they are primarily in public ownership.

Wetlands

Wetlands restoration is a model for bird conservation. Partnership-based programs focused on wetlands conservation received significant support from conservation and sportsmen communities starting in the mid-1970’s. The North American Wetland Conservation Act (NAWCA) program alone has delivered over $4.2 billion in on-the-ground wetland conservation. Programs like NAWCA have resulted in steady increases in populations of many waterfowl and other wetland-associated birds. Minor adjustments to these programs may help to reverse current declines for marsh-nesting species such as Franklin’s Gulls and Black Terns. Climate change, however, is expected to degrade wetlands, affecting birds and other wildlife.

Although many of these trends are discouraging, there are achievable solutions and reasons for optimism. The Montana Bird Conservation Partnership’s response is to frame a pro-active strategy, learning from past successes and failures. In part, this means adapting the wetland conservation strategy for other landscapes. It also involves focusing on common species and species groups that are showing disturbing patterns, in addition to birds that are already rare or at-risk. This will allow us to identify problems and seek solutions before species become listed as Threatened or Endangered. Details on MBCP projects and actions can be found throughout these web pages.