Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.

Posts about Bird conservation

Golden-winged Warblers get a gift

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: January 16, 2014 - 12:52 PM

A wind that blew strongly through northwestern Wisconsin in the fall of 2011 left behind the 90,000 acres of woodland destruction. Benefits from this would be hard to find.

But, consider the Golden-winged Warbler. 

This tiny brightly colored migrant depends on Minnesota and Wisconsin for 40 percent of its breeding habit. Golden-wings need a young-forest landscape, successional growth. For many reason human-based that type of forest is diminishing.

The Wisconsin storm jumped and bumped its way across the woods. The blowdowns are scattered. The entire situation is ideal for what happened and is happening next. Where possible, the scarred land is being restored as nesting habitat for Golden-winged Warblers.

This is an effort jointly pursued by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, six county governments, private landowners, and the American Bird Conservancy, a non-profit devoted to the welfare of birds.

Golden-wings are in a steep population decline, steepest of any songbird species in the past 45 years. We’re losing about four percent of these birds each year. Interest on your bank account of four percent annually, compounded, could fund your retirement. Lose four percent each year and you go bankrupt. That’s what could happen to the warbler.

The bird seeks nesting habitat in woodland about three to 15 years of age. Of the 90,000 acres touched by the storm about 13,000 have been identified as suitable for restoration to benefit the bird. That work is underway. The first Golden-wings to enjoy the fruits of that storm could be nesting there this coming spring. 

Ruffed Grouse and American Woodcock also should benefit by this landscape change.

This is good news for and good work done by everyone involved.

Below, a Golden-winged Warbler photographed near the area pounded by the storm.


$25 proposed for duck stamp -- absolutely necessary

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: January 10, 2014 - 12:51 PM

A bill to raise the price of a duck stamp from $15 to $25 was introduced in the U.S. Senate in December. This would be the first price increase since 1991, when the $15 fee was adopted.

This is a very good idea. We should hope that Congress sees this revenue increase -- a fee, not a tax -- with eyes rarely focused on benefit these days.

Duck stamp money is used to buy land for national wildlife refuges and waterfowl production areas. This is land viewed at the program's beginning as vital to waterfowl. True, and vital as well to thousands of species of animals, insects, plants and more. It is important to hundreds of species of songbirds.

The boost to $25 is necessary because of continuing increase in land values. What was purchased for $15 in 1991 cannot be purchased for that amount today. There's a gap of about 40 percent.

Since its beginning, the duck stamp has raised more than $750 million used to protect more than 6 million acres of habitat. Minnesota is part of what is known as the prairie pothole region, pothole describing small ponds and wetlands used for nesting by ducks. We have 7,000 such waterfowl production areas totaling 675,000 acres. This is bird habitat. We need more. 

Land value here has risen from an average of $400 per acre to $1,400 per acre since 1998. That's a jump of 250 percent, an increase out of reach even if the stamp costs $25. That is no reason not to raise the price. We gotta do what we can when we can.
Support the price increase if you have the opportunity (like write your Congressional representatives). And if you have yet to buy the current duck stamp, do so. For each of your dollars, 98 cents is used to conserve wetland habitat. That's the best conservation bargain to be found. Buy that stamp. 

Waterfowl moving south later

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: November 30, 2013 - 10:28 AM

Migration of birds of all species north and south is very different than it was a decade or two ago. That's well-documented for waterfowl in particular in a story in the most recent edition of the magazine Delta Waterfowl sends to members.

The story reports results of study of hunting statistics for the past 25 years. 

“What we found,” said Dr. Frank Rohwer, president of Delta Waterfowl, “was a phenomenal later shift in the harvest of migrating ducks in the mid-latitude and southern states.”

The information indicates that the birds are migrating later, although Dr. Rohwer did not come right out and say so. 

He used Kansas as an example. Average harvest date for Mallards in 1961 was Nov. 7. That date shifted to Dec. 5, 28 days later, in 2008-2009. For duck species resident in those southern hunting areas, birds that would not be migrating, harvest-date patterns were unchanged.

Ducks are staying later into the fall and winter seasons in North and South Dakota, which is why harvest dates to the south are becoming later. In January 2012 a record number of ducks and geese were counted in North Dakota. The article said that lack of snow cover was the primary reason the birds had not moved south. 

In South Dakota a similar situation was seen. Nearly a million birds were found during a January 2013 survey. 

“Those midwinter numbers and the motivation for waterfowl to migrate south are driven by the amount of snow cover, open water, and periods of cold temperatures,” Dr. Rohwer was quoted as saying. 

Is it that climate no longer pushes the ducks south at historic dates? Or, for southern hunters, is it that the ducks don’t get down to them, not having to go as far south to find open water and food (which is climate-related).

The question: Is it climate change or habitat change? Biologists believe it is both.

At Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern South Dakota later migration of geese is more obvious than such for ducks. That information comes from refuge biologist William Schultze.

“Since I began working here in 1976,” he wrote in an email, “the average peak of the Snow Goose migration has shifted from late October to near mid-November. 

“I see changes in agricultural practices in North Dakota and Canada as the primary reason for that shift,” he said. “One other factor that might be considered is the amount of wetlands available, at least in northern South Dakota, since the mid-1990s. The larger wetlands that remain open longer can hold a lot of ducks and geese,” he said.

Goose movement was heavy after Nov. 21 at Sand Lake, the date refuge lakes froze over. The number of Snow Geese reported on the refuge on Nov. 20 was 130,000, with 125,000 ducks and 5,000 geese estimated. Five days later the number of Snow Geese was 400, Canada Geese 3,500, ducks 18,000, and swans zero.

This photo of Snow Geese was taken at Sand Lake NWR.


Swapping trees for french fries

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: November 14, 2013 - 8:49 AM

On a recent Saturday morning in the upper right-hand corner of the front page of the StarTribune was the story of the day: Forests in state give way to farmland.

Forests? TREES? Way up there in Cass County??? First it was grasslands, then wetlands, and now we’ve finally gotten around to our forests. The issue of the moment is 1,500 sandy acres in Cass County, perfect for growing potatoes once you get rid of the trees. Potatoes for whom? McDonald’s! Happy Deal!

Genetically modified potatoes, maybe, so that nothing interferes with harvest and profit. We’ve done to that corn and soybeans, which explains in part our continuing loss of grass and water. Easy grow. Easy sell. Easy profit.

Let's use genetics in our favor, either re-modifying the plants or modifying us so that when we even see corn or soybeans we gasp for breath. There must be a gene somewhere in our bodies that could be switched on or off to make these nemesis crops (and from an environmental standpoint that’s what they are) -- to make them inedible.

Of course, pretty soon it will be too warm here for corn to grow, and so to for the particular species of trees facing the plow in Cass County.

Below, a Canada Warbler. In a tree.

Boundary Waters could resemble our Orono yard

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: October 27, 2013 - 8:41 PM

Scary thought: by the end of this century or close to it, far northern Minnesota could resemble from a vegetative standpoint our Orono neighborhood, in particular our yard. This would be the undesired result of a warming climate.

I learned that when reading the excellent article on forests of the future in the StarTribune of Sunday, Oct. 20. The article focused on our boreal forest, the forest you see in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

An illustration with the article showed “A possible 2100 BWCA Landscape.” The plants depicted were:

* Little blue stem, a prairie grass that isn’t on our yard but grows about a mile north of us.

* Prickly-pear cactus. We have it in our flowerbeds, imported from Nebraska and South Dakota, and thriving.

* Red oak and burr oak. Not in our yard but close.

*Basswood. We have it.

* Hackberry. We have it.

* Hybrid cattail. We have that, too.

* The only plant I'm not certain of is juniper, although it could be nearby and unnoticed.

That vegetative change, of course, would produce a profound change in bird life as well. Many species would disappear from the state, moving north with the climate and vegetative change.

Minnesota is home in the breeding season to about 20 species of warblers. Several of them depend upon spruce trees, which would be among the plant species considered non-survivors.

Birds are very good at finding specific niches in which they find food. In a single spruce tree you could find five species of warbler making a living, each staking out a particular part of the tree.

Yellow-rumped Warblers feed mostly in the tree’s understory, below 10 feet. The Black-throated Green Warbler works the mid-portion of the tree. It shares these branches with Cape May Warblers. They can share because Black-throated Green hunts on the branches, while Cape May looks for insects attracted by sap on the trunk.

Blackburnian Warblers and Bay-breasted Warblers share the treetops. The former feeds on outer branches and by fly-catching aerial insects, while the latter finds insects closer to the trunk.

You can see what happens to bird diversity as spruce trees fade to cooler climes.

Read the article. Consider our future. Do something about it.

(The information on warblers and spruce trees was taken from the book “How Not to Be Eaten By Insects,” author Gilbert Waldbauer, newly released by University of California Press.)

Below, Black-throated Green Warbler



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