Çağan Şekercioğlu wins Award for Conservation Work

Çağan Şekercioğlu, a wildlife biologist and activist concerned with saving the wetlands in his native Turkey, has won his country’s highest science prize for his work in conservation. Çağan is also an ardent bird lover and photographer who will be featured in our documentary SongbirdSOS.

We filmed with Çağan at the Aras Valley Bird Paradise, a conservation site in Eastern Turkey. The region is a globally important wetland. “It’s an oasis,” said Çağan. “These birds are migrating from as far away as South Africa, 4000 kilometers away, on these very long, difficult journeys. This is an important stop-over place where they can rest, feed, breed and some actually winter here too.”

Şekercioğlu’s team of volunteers have recorded 247 bird species at Aras Valley so far and the numbers continue to climb as they study the region further.

Cagan with his team and the SongbirdSOS crew.

Cagan with his team and the SongbirdSOS crew.

Çağan said he was invited to apply for the award last year after he met with Turkish president Abdullah Gül to present him a petition to save the Aras River wetlands from a proposed dam.   There are plans in the works for an enormous dam that could destroy the natural wetland, compromising important bird and wildlife habitat.  “Turkey now ranks 121st out of 132 countries worldwide in biodiversity and habitat,” said Çağan. “The conservation situation in Turkey is becoming worse as environmental laws are being dismantled and literally being thrown aside.”

In spite of this challenging climate, Çağan and his team have been able to accomplish  a lot, including successfully campaigning the government to declare Eastern Turkey’s first protected wetland, building the country’s first bird nesting island and instituting the first wildlife corridor.

“If my receiving this award can convince the government to not destroy the wetlands where I do my scientific research, the cycle will be complete,” said Çağan.

Cagan laughing

Şekercioğlu was among five top international researchers selected for the 2014 awards by TUBITAK, the Scientific and Technical Research Council of Turkey.  The award celebrates scientists from Turkey that work abroad (Çağan  is also a professor at the University of Utah in the USA). He is the first ecologist, ornithologist and conservation biologist to receive the prestigious award.

Çağan Şekercioğlu’s is the founder and director of the environmental organization KuzeyDoga http://www.kuzeydoga.org/ KozeyDoga conducts long-term ecological research, biodiversity monitoring, community-based conservation and wetland restoration. It also promotes village-based bio-cultural tourism to provide financial incentives to local communities to support biodiversity and landscape conservation in Turkey.   

Songbirds in Decline but Conservation Works!

State of the Birds ReportThe State of the Birds report is out.  The report tries to mitigate the drastic news about further declines and more ‘red listed’ species with Conservation success stories. What does this mean for Songbirds? The news is not great, for forest songbirds, nor for neotropical migrants.

“The eastern forests indicator for 26 obligate breeding birds shows an overall drop of 32%, with a continued steady decline since 2009. Species dependent on either young forests (such as Golden-winged Warbler and Eastern Towhee) or mature deciduous forest (such as Wood Thrush and Cerulean Warbler) are showing the steepest declines. Because 84% of eastern forests are privately owned, timber companies and other forest owners can greatly benefit bird populations by maintaining large forest blocks and participating in sustainable forestry initiatives.

The western forests indicator, based on 39 obligate breeding species, has declined nearly 20% and has continued to decline since 2009. More than half of western forests are on public lands. Species dependent on oak and pinyonjuniper woodlands (such as Oak Titmouse and Pinyon Jay) are showing the steepest declines. As in the East, both early successional species (such as Rufous Hummingbird and MacGillivray’s Warbler) and mature forest species (such as Vaux’s Swift and Cassin’s Finch) are declining.”

I feel very fortunate to have encountered two of the songbirds mentioned above on the SSOS filmmaking journey. We recorded a Golden-winged Warbler in Costa Rica with Alejandra-Martinez-Salinas and a Wood Thrush in Waterloo Ontario with Lyle Friesen. On the downside, filming a Cerulean Warbler was impossible, as their numbers are way down, and the State of the Birds report, like our film SongbirdSOS, helps us understand why this is so. 

“Thirty Watch List species are Neotropical migrant songbirds that breed in North America and winter south of U.S. borders.

Neotropical migrant conservation requires international cooperation to protect habitats throughout their ranges, on the premise that conservation in Latin America and the Caribbean will ensure these birds return to the U.S. in spring. Bicknell’s Thrush, a breeding bird of Northeastern mountains, needs immediate action to stop deforestation in Hispaniola. Virginia’s Warbler and Rufous Hummingbird both breed in the West and winter in Mexican pine-oak and thorn forests.

Cerulean and Golden-winged warblers breed in eastern forests and winter in the tropics. These fast-declining species have benefitted from collaborations by scientists, agencies, and businesses that created breeding habitat on U.S.timberlands and wintering habitat in Colombian coffee-growing landscapes. Such partnerships provide a model for voluntary, international habitat conservation for other Neotropical migrants.”

 

 

Bill Evans Unique Songbird Acoustic Monitoring

For nearly 30 years, Bill Evans has had his ear to the sky,  listening to the calls of songbirds as they travel through the night. The process is called acoustic monitoring and the data he collects provides valuable information on songbird migration and the health of their populations.

Bill’s journey as a renegade scientist began in 1985 after a long night of delivering pizzas. He was resting on a bluff in eastern Minnesota at two in the morning when he heard it: the sound of hundreds of unseen birds flying overhead in the dark spring sky. He was entranced by their calls. “It was just such an enthralling experience for me,” said Bill. “To hear those calls so clearly – I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

Bill Evans night sky

At that time Bill was a history of science student at the University of Minnesota. He didn’t know how, but that day he decided he would find a way to record those calls over the duration of an entire night and to archive the data for others. He’s been committed to this work ever since.

Bill’s process has evolved with technology. He recorded his first calls on hifi VCRs, playing back the tapes and noting the calls by hand. The advent of computers has sped up the process and he now uses software that can extract the calls automatically.

He left his academic path to pursue his passion full-time and now works from his make-shift laboratory at his home in Ithaca, New York. His methods are unorthodox.  He constructs his microphones with the cheapest materials he can find: buckets, rubber bands and plastic wrap. He publishes his songbird data and his do-it-yourself methods on his website, www.oldbird.org, in the hopes of empowering citizen scientists to participate in this ambitious and important long-term bird acoustic monitoring project.

Similar to the Breeding Bird Survey, bird acoustic monitoring employed by citizen scientists across the continent has the potential to become a valuable tool for ornithologists and conservationists. He wants his work to become an index for looking at change, not just for the birds, but for the health of the planet as well.

Mic and Observatory

“These birds are tied down to habitat,” said Bill. “If you’re monitoring the population of the species, especially those neotropical  migrant songbirds, you have a sort of pulse on the condition of central or southern America wherever those birds go. You have a way of tuning into the changes of the planet from your home.”

Bill’s innovative methods give scientists a new way to measure the population trends of migratory songbirds. He is still driven by the same passion from that awe-inspiring moment but now, considering the many threats faced by songbirds, with a greater sense of urgency.

The SongbirdSOS documentary crew filmed with Bill on a beautiful night near the Cornell Night Sky Observatory in Ithaca, New York. 

Are Pesticides Causing Problems for Tree Swallow Songbirds?

The call of the Tree Swallow is a familiar sound to anyone living in the fields and wetlands of rural North America. These songbirds winter farther north than any other American swallow and return to their nesting ground long before other swallows come back.

Distinguished by their deep-blue backs and pure, white fronts, Tree Swallows are known for their impressive flight acrobatics as they chase after insects.

This songbird species has historically thrived in agriculture areas and grasslands.  The species has traditionally fared well in grasslands but has quickly begun to lose ground in terms of its population stability.  Scientists are beginning to notice that aerial insectivores associated with farmland are now the steepest in decline.

The North American Breeding Bird Survey  reports that tree swallows in Canada have declined 62% since 1966.  This alarming pattern is also appearing in the USA and Europe.

“Their numbers are telling us something about the environment that they’re living in,” says Christy Morrissey, an eco-toxicologist at the University of Saskatchewan. “The common denominator there is that they are living in an area which is susceptible to pesticides.”

The tree swallow habit of nesting tree cavities and bird house/nestboxes means that scientists can study their breeding behaviour in great detail; they know more about Tree Swallows than any other aerial insectivore. Bob Clarke, a professor at the University Saskatchewan, has been studying them for over twenty years.  His research has provided the Morrissey with a strong foundation for continuing to study pesticides and their impact on the species.

Christy suspects the recent introduction of neonicotinoid pesticides could be affecting insect populations, which in turn impacts the Tree Swallow’s diet. “We are seeing very clear differences between sites that have more agricultural intensification than sites that are more natural,” she says. Let’s hope that Christy can find the answer. The Breeding Bird Survey reports that tree swallows in Canada have declined 62% since 1966.

 

Saskatchewan Scientist Studying Impact of Pesticides

Christy Morrissey is in a race against time to prove that neonicotinoid pesticides are causing steep songbird population declines in the Canadian prairies. An ecotoxicologist at the University of  Saskatchewan, Christy has been researching how these powerful pesticides are seeping into the surrounding wetlands and poisoning the food chain.

We filmed with Christy last year as she collected her first wetland samples. The results were troubling. Of her 80 test water samples, all but two were contaminated with neonicotinoid pestcides. We checked in with Christy to see how her research is progressing this year. Christy and her team collect spring wetland water sample

Christy Morrissey

A portion of her study involves measuring the clutch size and body condition of Tree Swallows in different regions across the prairie. Could there be a connection between weaker birds and pesticides?

Christy and her team are in year three of their Tree Swallow study and are developing a stronger understanding of the birds’ diet. In spite of disruptions in their food supply, the birds maintain their diet of midges and mosquitoes, even if they are in short supply.

“We hypothesize that birds at agricultural sites must work harder to deliver to the chicks,” she said. “They will either increase the number of foraging trips or increase the amount of time spend attending the nestlings.” She hasn’t been surprised to notice that the birds are generally weaker in areas with more intensive agriculture and higher concentration of pesticides.

Pest damage

The flea beetle is an incredibly damaging pest for farmers if left untreated

Her team has also started to use radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on the tree swallows to record the number of feeding trips they make to their nests. This new possibility opens up doors to exciting research opportunities; Christy can now relate the number of feeding trips by each sex to their stress response.

This summer will be a busy and exciting time for Christy but at the same time, troubling. During filming, Christy made an interesting comment about her complicated relationship to her research. “I get excited about the results,” she said. “The fact that there are neonicotinoids in the water, seeing impacts as a scientist makes me excited because it’s interesting. But as a naturalist and even just a mother I guess it makes me concerned that…very little work has been done from the regulatory perspective to address this.”

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