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Thoughts of an Iowa Birdwatcher

These will be random thoughts about birds, birders, birdwatching, feeders, reptiles, wildflowers and nature in general. I will specifically discuss conservation interests, and other things as the mood hits me. The topics will probably lean a bit towards of interest to Iowa, as that is where I live.

  • © 2004 by An Iowa Birder.
  • Friday, January 16, 2009

    Science, the Environment and the President(s)

    In just a few days we will have a new President. This bodes well for the environment and our nation’s science policies. The outgoing administration has long ignored sound scientific advice to the point of having nonscientists in all the positions of advising the president on science. President-elect Obama has named working scientists to important positions. John Holdren has been appointed director of the Office of White Science and Technology Policy --- Holdren is a Harvard physicist. He will also co-chair the Council of Advisors on Science and Technology Policy with Harold Varmus, former Director of the NIH and Eric Lander, and MIT specialist in the human genome. Appointed to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is Jane Lubchenco, a well respected marine biologist and former winner of the Audubon Medal for Conservation.

    The Bush administration has an 8-year legacy of ignoring the advice of scientists. This has been made clear numerous times with respect to decisions regarding endangered species --- Interior Inspector General Earl Devaney reported in December that Julie MacDonald, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior did great harm to the department’s integrity and the morale of professionals working to save endangered species, and possible out-right risking the well being of endangered species. She was a civil engineer with no training in the natural sciences. In 2008 she was found to have reversed seven ESA rulings that would have increased protection to specific species. In addition she directly interfered thirteen times with decisions, and influenced.

    More recently the Richard Carmona, a former Surgeon General, told Congress that top administration played down public health considerations of global warming due to political considerations [global warming was considered a ‘liberal cause’].

    The Bush Administration gave us two last minute presents. One he created 3 Marine National Monuments, extending the protection of eight National Wildlife Refuges and one more site. These sites are widely scattered in remote areas of the pacific. The eight areas that center around existing Fish and Wildlife Service refuge areas are Rose Atoll in American Samoa, Wake Island, Johnston Island, Palmyra Island, Kingman Reef, Baker Island, Howland Island and Jarvis Island. The ninth site is the waters around the northern Marianas and the deepest ocean canyon in the world, the Mariana Trench, 11,033 meters (36,201 feet) at its deepest.

    The former is very nice, but his second farewell present is rule change was put into effect that greatly weakens the Endangered Species Act. Environmental advocates say this would make every ESA action a political decision rather than a decision based on the best available science. This rule change would eliminate some mandatory reviews that have been performed on construction and timber sales, and prohibits consideration of the effect of these actions based on the effect of global warming’s effects on endangered species. Bush Interior Secretary Dick Kempthorne said that nothing in the regulation absolves a federal agency of its responsibilities. It might not absolve them, it just would not allow them to use. This rule change will take effect before Obama takes office. Although Obama has said he would reverse this, it will take much longer to do this reverse this because of the rule making procedure.

    Tuesday, January 13, 2009

    Hawaii’s birds: the Po’ouli and the ’Akepa: Will We Ever Learn?

    My bedtime reading has recently included the Race to Save the World’s Rarest Bird: The Discovery and Death of the Po’ouli by Alvin Powell [Mechanicsburg, PA : Stackpole Books, c2008, viii, 280 p. : map ; 22 cm., Includes bibliographical references and index]. This is a fascinating story of work with an endangered species in some of the worst habitat in the U.S.A. Fascinating and depressing: if the subtitle did not give it away, the book opens with death of a captive Po’ouli. The Po’ouli was unknown to science and apparently natives of Hawai’i until its discovery in July 1973 in the state of Hawai’i’s Hana Forest Reserve on Maui. When initially discovered it was not clear to what family this species belonged. Eventually it was found that his species was one of Hawai’i’s honeycreepers, albeit a species very distantly related to the others.

    One would not think that Maui’s with its resorts and beaches could be so miserable, but this is truly one of the most inhospitable places imaginable. This is rainforest so impenetrable that machetes are needed to hack trails, so rainy that researchers are often confined to camp and unable to see anything because of the rain and so cold that researchers caught out of camp needed to huddle together for warmth. At it rained so hard that looking for birds was impossible, confining researchers to tents except for redigging trenches around tent and to take care of things that one did not want to do in your tent.

    After its discovery initial estimates of the Po’ouli’s population was estimated in the low hundreds, and it was added to the endangered within two years of its discovery. Feral pigs, goats, rats and Rosy Wolf Snails took a toll. Wolf Snails are introduced predatory snails that eat native snails. One diet items of the Po’ouli are snails. It was clear that the population was crashing. The fact that Po’ouli’s do not sing and their only call is a nondescript chip that sounds like other species made population estimates difficult, especially when coupled with the topography and climate.

    The Hawaiian Forest Bird Survey ran from 1976-83 and attempted to identify the distribution and population size of all forest birds on five islands. Population was ca 140, down 80-99% from initial estimates. Pig activity was increasing dramatically. A variety of strategies were thought about: Fencing and removal of feral pigs, establishment of a second population, captive breeding, among others. Fencing was tried first, but the steep, gullied nature of the landscape made it very difficult and hideously expensive. By the time bureaucratic arguments over what permits were needed from what agency were settled it was 1986. Still the population fell. The next survey suggested a population of six [two pair and 2 single birds]. By the time the next year past, both pairs had lost their mates and one single bird disappeared. At this point thoughts turned to relocation. Since the remaining three birds’ territories did not over lap, they would never meet and mate on their own. Captive breeding was viewed as the last resort. Captive breeding has had it successes, but much was unknown about this species and honeycreepers are difficult to breed. Precious little was known about Po’oulis, only one or two nests were ever found and I think only once was an adult observed feeding young. So was decided to relocate individuals from one territory to another in hopes that the birds would meet naturally and breed. One problem with relocation is that many vertebrates are very faithful to their home ranges. Permit issues delayed the start of relocations. Not surprisingly, relocations met with failure as relocated birds returned to their home ranges. Captive breeding was going to be tried. Again permit issues slowed things down. One bird was captured and brought into a place where it was hoped to start captive breeding. The bird sickened, lost weight and died on November 26, 2004. I do not believe a living Po’ouli was seen again. Upon necropsy, this bird appeared to be extremely old.

    The book ends on a rather optimistic note, certain that we are better off today than we were 30 years ago to preserve a rare species. People should have learned from the problems and clearly everyone realized that efforts should have started far earlier. Yet I open the November 11 issue of Nature and see ‘Feathers Fly over Hawaiian Bird’, a news/commentary item by Rex Dalton [Nature Vol 456: 682-683]. In this Dalton describes infighting between ornithologists from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa and refuge staff for the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge on the island of Hawai’i. The ornithologists believe that the ’akepa [yet another threatened Hawaiian Honeycreeper] is undergoing a population crash and suggest that competition with the invasive Japanese White-eye over food is a major factor. Refuge officials believe there is no decline. In published papers Leonard Freed suggests that poor nutrition makes the ’akepa prone to parasites. He suggests that there are only 4000 ’akepa on the refuge and over 20000 Japanese White-eyes. The refuge’s wildlife biologist admits to not even reading the paper.

    Will we ever learn?


    A picture and recording of the Po’ouli can be found at
    Po’ouli Image and sound recording
    and more information at
    Po’ouli Facts/

    A film of the ’Akepa is at
    ’Akepa Film
    more information is at
    ’Akepa Factsheet