Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Northern Shrike at the Bog

Northern Shrike

When Russ and I went to the Sax-Zim Bog on Sunday, we spent a little time at the feeding station on Admiral Road. Not one chickadee or nuthatch showed up, nor even a Downy Woodpecker. This has been a hard year for seeing birds, but that’s not the reason tiny birds were so scarce. If I were a 10-gram chickadee, I wouldn’t come anywhere near the feeders right then, not when a Northern Shrike was lurking right there, watching the feeders. 

Northern Shrike

Northern Shrikes are nicknamed "butcher birds" for their habit of impaling prey on thorns, barbs, and other sharp things like that. They usually survey their domain from above—almost all my photos of them are backlit as the birds sit on treetops or on powerlines.

Northern Shrike

This particular bird may have noticed activity at the feeder from a high perch and decided it would have a better shot at some of those birds by sitting closer. I was across the road from it using a 300mm lens, so my photos are very cropped, but they’re the best I’ve ever taken for showing the shrike’s underside—it’s not white or very pale gray, as it looks in most of my photos. Rather, the whitish breast feathers are edged with soft gray, giving the bird’s plumage a very soft, gentle look—the avian version of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Northern Shrike

When we got there, two guys from Queens in New York were puzzling over it. They of course knew it was a Northern Shrike, but it has quite a different appearance from the Loggerhead Shrikes they normally see, which have a larger, much more pronounced facial mask and a beak that seems bigger somehow. Loggerhead Shrikes are southern birds with no need for all the feathers insulating their face and nostrils, so they can show off their beak with the killing tip without freezing their faces. They also are a purer white beneath, feather edging much subtler.

Loggerhead Shrike

A great many songbirds are obligate predators, if we accept the truth that the insects, spiders, and other tiny invertebrates they hunt are animals.

Black-capped Chickadee about to feed babies

Shrikes eat insects in season, but both American species also eat a fairly substantial number of warm-blooded animals—that is, birds and mammals. And they don’t necessarily restrict themselves to tiny species. The only time I ever had a Varied Thrush in my backyard, it was chased off by a shrike, though Northern Shrikes average a bit smaller and lighter than Varied Thrushes. I don’t know how that particular interlude ended, but the thrush never returned. 

The hooked tip on a shrike’s bill is the only lethal weapon it carries on its person, but it can use those thorns and barbs not only as meat lockers to store prey but also, sometimes, to finish an animal off. Weighing a mere 2 or 2 ½ ounces, shrikes have a fast enough metabolism that they can’t go without food nearly as long as large hawks or owls, so when the hunting is good, they cache away what they can against future shortages.

Northern Shrike cache

I’ve spent time with a lot of Northern Shrikes, but never heard them make a sound. Merriam-Webster says the etymology of the word shrike is “perhaps from Middle English *shrik, from Old English scrīc thrush; akin to Middle English shriken to shriek.” But I suspect any shrieking associated with shrikes is done by their prey, not them. 

Back in the 1980s when my backyard was filled with birds every day, I saw shrikes fairly often in winter. Once in a while they caught a bird and sat eating it in one of my bushes. Chickadees would often alight in the branches above to scold, spitting out every swear word in a chickadee’s vocabulary—and believe me, they know a lot of naughty words! But even when filled with angry passion, chickadees know exactly when to move on—they’d disappear when the shrike was down to the last bits of food, before it could switch from feeding back into hunting mode. 

Shrikes are almost always in hunting mode, so chickadees don’t get to voice their opinions right at them very often. But even during those brief interludes, neither the shrike nor the chickadees are shrieking. Sometimes people can’t help but shriek when a shrike gets one of their backyard finches or chickadees—I’ve even been known to do that—but somehow I doubt that it was backyard birdwatchers in the Middle English era who were shrieking at shrikes. And I certainly wasn’t shrieking at my cooperative and photogenic shrike in the bog Sunday. I sure don’t like it when one grabs one of my chickadees, and I don’t relish taking photos of them relishing their avian meals, but like everyone else, shrikes gotta do what they gotta do.



Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Twelve Owls in St. Louis County!


Back in 2011, I wrote a book for the University of Minnesota Press, Twelve Owls, about the twelve species of owls that have been recorded in Minnesota. At the time I wrote it, I’d seen eleven of them, all in St. Louis County (and some in other counties as well).

Burrowing Owl

The rarest owl I’d seen here was the Burrowing Owl who turned up for a single day in the Erie Pier area at 40th Avenue West in Duluth in 1997. That was on the day we’d set aside as a birdathon fundraiser for Hawk Ridge, with groups heading out to see as many birds as possible in the county. When the Burrowing Owl was discovered in the morning, most of us were way up in the bog, and this was before text alerts, but some wonderful birders headed up and tracked everyone down to make sure we all headed to Duluth to see this perhaps once-in-a-lifetime bird. Burrowing Owls are critically endangered in the state and no longer seen every year even where they belong, in the prairie areas of extreme western Minnesota.

Archimedes

One evening in September 2004, I was shocked to hear an Eastern Screech-Owl from my own front yard. Frank Nicoletti banded one or two that fall in or near Duluth. If a screech-owl was going to show up on Peabody Street, I’m not surprised that I was lucky enough to hear it—my licensed education screech owl, Archimedes, always called a lot in September, increasing the likelihood that a passing screech-owl would linger and call back. Eastern Screech-Owls are regular year-round residents in Minnesota, but further south. That one over 15 years ago was the 11th owl species I’d seen in St. Louis County, which seemed about as good as it could possibly get.

Nine kinds of owls are fairly straightforward up here, and I'd seen them all by 1988 or so: the Great Horned, Snowy, Northern Hawk, Barred, Great Gray, Long-eared, Short-eared, Boreal, and Northern Saw-whet Owls. The last holdout, the Barn Owl, is a southern species, endangered at the top of its normal range in Iowa and Illinois, and merely a vagrant in Wisconsin and Minnesota, so I figured that one wasn't in the cards for me unless there was a reliable one that showed up on a farm somewhere in extreme southern Minnesota.

Barn Owl

Oddly enough, ever since the time we moved to Duluth in 1981, I’ve been having a recurring dream about seeing a Barn Owl in my neck of the woods, but that 39-year-old fantasy seemed a pipe dream. On New Year's Day this year, someone reported seeing one in the Sax-Zim Bog, but no one else confirmed it even with all the birders scouring the bog to start their year lists. My daughter was in town through January 3, so I figured I’d check out the bog on the fourth, but then I had that pesky heart attack on the 3rd and had to put off birding. Meanwhile, no one else reported the Barn Owl until Saturday the 11th—I saw a text message about that around 5 P.M., when it was already dark. I figured it would be too much of a long shot to try first thing the next morning, but it was reported again Sunday, so Russ drove me up to the bog.

At least a dozen cars were parked along Highway 7 when we arrived. The bird had been seen fifteen or twenty minutes before we got there, but it stayed hunkered down for couple of hours or so. When it finally took off, I got a few flight shots, but it was never up for more than a few seconds.

Barn Owl

A Barn Owl! My body might not have been 100 percent what with my heart attack, but my eyes were about as good as they've ever been thanks to my recent cataract surgery. The bird wasn’t close and I saw it only in flight, so my photos aren’t the best, but oh, well—this Barn Owl was my twelfth Minnesota owl species, and my twelfth in St. Louis County, to boot! I don't know how many other birders have seen all twelve in the county.  It's a pretty cool distinction!

Barn Owl

The thrilling afterglow lasted while Russ and I ate a late lunch at the Wilbert Café. Then I got another text message—the poor owl had alighted close enough to some people that they could see it was in very bad condition, and they ended up capturing it to bring it to the Raptor Center. The poor thing didn’t make it—a profoundly distressing, heartbreaking end to the day.

Some people of course criticized the birders who had been “gawking” at the poor bird, as if these birders were responsible for or in any way connected to the owl’s death. Highway 7 is always busy, and in addition to the auto traffic, several loud, long trains went by while I was there, yet for some reason the owl had arrived and settled in there entirely on its own. Were the people gathered at the roadside disturbing it? Ravens harassing and dive-bombing it in the morning certainly had, but every person I saw stayed on the roadside, and there were absolutely no footprints into the snow either—clearly no one had been "chasing" or otherwise harassing it. The bird was badly emaciated and would have died whether there were human witnesses or not.

No one knows what sends out-of-range vagrants wandering, so we’ll never know why this particular Barn Owl appeared at the Sax-Zim Bog at the very start of 2020. (Actually, the landowners said it had been hanging around and staying in their barn for about a month!) At the very start of 2016, an Ivory Gull turned up in Duluth.

Ivory Gull

Hundreds of birders from all around the country saw it in the weeks before that bird started looking poorly and ended up dying. As sad as that situation was, I feel even sadder about the Barn Owl—something about owls touches my heart in a place gulls can’t approach.

After the Raptor Center necropsies the bird, we may learn something that could help the next out-of-place Barn Owl. The very first Barn Owl I ever saw, on the grounds of the Lincoln Park Zoo in December 1978, also ended up dying—even Chicago is too far north of the winter range of this bird. I’m glad I got to witness a moment of that bird’s life, and still treasure the photos Russ took of it, proof that our lives had intersected it for one brief moment. I’m sure in the murky future that’s how I’ll feel about this Barn Owl. But right now my triumph at having seen my twelfth owl species in St. Louis County is tainted with sorrow.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

January Blues

Black-capped Chickadee

Something about the first brilliant blue-sky days of January always fills me with delight and hope. The vivid sky on January 6 was especially welcome this year—that was my first morning home from the hospital after another heart attack. I’m doing fine and should be back to my usual routine pretty soon, in part thanks to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, or WARF, which funded and patented the original research on a blood-clotting preventive named, naturally, warfarin. Although warfarin was originally used as a rat poison, it turns out to be an excellent blood-clotting preventative for people in my situation, with an aneurism on a coronary artery. Russ and I were already in WARF’s debt—they provided a research grant when he was working on his Ph.D. Meanwhile, I'm waiting for my blood levels to stabilize and can't take photos with my heavy camera for four weeks after my angiogram, so I’m thinking about these bright days of January.

Ever since the winter solstice on December 22, days have been getting longer, but it’s never noticeable at first, because right around both solstices, the day-to-day changes in daylength are measured in seconds, not minutes. The sun was setting at 4:20 pm here in Duluth from December 5 through the 17th. On the solstice, sunset was at 4:23, three minutes later than that. On January 9, it’ll set a quarter-hour later than that, at 4:39 pm.

To offset that pre-solstice gain in the afternoon, due to the sun’s angle and rotation, the sun doesn’t rise earlier until well after the solstice. On December 22, the sun rose at 7:50 am, but sunrise continued to get later, not earlier, for several days after that, and was still happening at 7:53 on January 6. Now, finally, sunrise is arriving earlier in the morning again—today it was at 7:52.

Right now, the change in daylength from one day to the next is about a minute and a half, but that will be increasing right up through the equinox. February first will be 2 minutes 44 seconds longer than January 31, and March first will be 3 minutes and 18 seconds longer than February 29. The earliest sunrises of the year will happen before the summer solstice, at 5:13 from June 12 through June 18. Of course, if there was no such thing as Daylight Saving Time, sunrise then would be at 4:13 am. And the latest sunsets will happen well after the summer solstice, with the latest sunsets at 9:06 from June 20 through June 30. 

Whatever will happen in June, right now the sun is still not coming up until almost 8 am. The little kids waiting at the school bus stop on my corner are still standing out there in the dark. Chickadees aren’t singing that early, and even crows prefer to sleep in until it’s a little lighter.

To match the small number of hours in the day right now, birds are also at a minimum, in numbers of both species and individuals. My backyard birds are few and far between this year—as of January 8, I’ve only seen chickadees, pigeons, crows, and Downy Woodpeckers in my yard. Of course, I did spend three of those days in the hospital (where I added Herring Gull to my year list), and am not up to speed with birding quite yet, but I’ve had plenty of time to look out the window and wonder where my Pileated Woodpeckers are, or what happened to the Red-bellied Woodpecker who was here on December 31. Other people have been letting me know that their birds are scarcer than usual this year, too. But it’s probably not smart of me to brood about that quite yet. Until I’m a little further along on my recovery, I’m spending my time looking at my chickadees and counting minutes, literally. As our days are finally getting noticeably longer, I’m putting my focus on the lovely times ahead.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

What Am I Prepared to DO?

White-throated Sparrow

I’m writing this on the first day of 2020. This brand-new year is filled with promise—it’s an amusing coincidence that thanks to my cataract surgery in December, I’m facing this new year with 20/20 vision, and because my cataracts were congenital, this may be the very first year of my life that I could say that.

I started doing “For the Birds” on May 12, 1986, the day after my half birthday, making me exactly 34 ½. So on my birthday this year, when I’ll be exactly 69 years old, I’ll have been producing this program for exactly half of my life. That’s pretty cool, too.

New Years Days remind us of time passing in this finite life we’ve been given—that’s why so many of us start out the new year filled with resolve. I’ve been thinking a lot about mitigation lately, because the current policy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife ended its requirement that companies and local and state governments offset major bird kills with some sort of mitigation project. It’s one thing for me to complain about an unprecedented policy change that disrupts many decades of environmental protection; it’s another to do something about it. It’s going to take a great deal of organized effort to change this—we need birding, hunting, environmental, and conservation organizations and individuals who care about the natural world to join together to press the government to return to its former bipartisan policies designed to protect wildlife and the environment that we all need for our very survival. I’ll be spending the next several months researching which organizations are effectively working to challenge the new policy, to publicize their work and to guide my own donations.

It can’t be emphasized enough how important mitigation has been in at least slowing the devastating effects of runaway development, wetland-filling, large-scale corporate agriculture, oil and gas extraction, and so much else. Doing what we can to restore requirements for mitigation is going to be vitally important.

But beyond major mitigation projects, I decided that as an individual, I need to step up my own personal efforts toward mitigating the damage that I do. It’s not enough to do my best to minimize damage—if we’re going to clean up this mess and give wildlife a fighting chance to survive for more than a generation or two more, we clearly need to do much more than we are doing now. Minimizing damage—taking fewer trips fueled by gas and driving at or below the speed limit to both conserve fuel and minimize collisions with wildlife, lowering the thermostat in cold weather and raising it in hot weather, buying more efficient appliances and cars while overall buying less stuff in the first place—all this is indeed taking steps forward. But every trip we take fueled by gas, whether to an exotic place or to the grocery store; every time we squander even more fuel by driving faster than necessary; every time our furnace or air conditioner goes on even briefly; every time we turn on an appliance or purchase any new item—every time we do any of these, we take steps backward. I’ve been making donations to organizations that protect and reforest tropical forests to help mitigate my travel, but now I’ve decided that it’s time for me to start mitigating other environmental damage I cause, too. This is the year I’ll focus on how I can do that.

[I’m going to work seriously to update my 101 Ways to Help Birds, which now numbers 106, and I’m now doing this with the help of a wonderful young friend, Heidi Trudell, a committed conservationist as well as trusted friend. I already have ABC tape on a few windows in our house, but will be upgrading every window to the “Zen Wind Curtains” that apparently do the best job of preventing bird collisions. Putting them up will mostly be a job for warmer weather, but I’ll get the supplies to start making the first set this month, and have them ready to put up during the first thaw when the ground is secure enough for us to set up a ladder against the house.

I haven’t hit a bird with my car in several years. We’ve had fewer birds in our yard this year than maybe ever before, with no real migration events, so there weren’t many window collisions, but one White-throated Sparrow, died.

White-throated Sparrow detail

I’m going to make an assumption that for every collision death I know about, one more flew away with a 50/50 chance of survival, and one more was killed that I didn’t discover before a crow, jay, or squirrel carried it off. So I'm thinking that for every bird I'm aware of that is killed at my windows, I'm actually responsible for three.

Taking precautions to ensure that I don’t hit birds with my car and birds don’t collide with my windows is important, but don’t I owe some sort of penalty for each bird that does die from my car or my windows? Setting a reasonable dollar amount isn’t really possible. All the trillions of American dollars on the planet wouldn’t be enough to restore one dead White-throated Sparrow's life.

The way people assess financial damages when a human being’s death is due to negligence or some other preventable cause involves assessing what financial resources the victim would likely have produced over the rest of their natural lifetime, but wild birds are kind of lax in the money realm. I’ve never ever believed that money was any kind of way to assess the real value of anything or anyone. When even a run-of-the-mill NFL player gets orders of magnitude more money than the caregivers providing gentle, loving care to incapacitated people with dementia; when people monetizing gossipy or mean-spirited Twitter and YouTube posts make as much or more money than the best elementary and high school teachers, and when the Boeing CEO whose decisions led to two airplane crashes that killed 346 people was allowed to resign and given a golden parachute worth an estimated $30 to 40 million—well, that little fact alone tells me I have no clue about the value of human lives relative to money, much less the dollar value of one little White-throated Sparrow. But I do know that it's not insignificant.

So I’m going to spend some time this month mulling over what a fair penalty should be when I’m responsible for a bird death. That’s just half the equation—I’ll also have to figure out where that money should go to do the most genuine good toward mitigating each loss. I’m always talking about how we need to roll up our sleeves and do something to make sure things get better. In this, the exact half-century year since the first Earth Day, that’s exactly what I’m going to be doing.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Gratitude

Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth
This sloth was right outside my window at the Canopy Tower in Panama. Boy did she fill me with gratitude!
I like to end every year thinking about all the things I’m grateful for. In the face of so many genuine environmental disasters with even more cataclysmic disasters looming, it can be hard to feel gratitude or joy, yet unless we can clearly see the beauty and value of the natural world, we lose our incentive to protect it. Every bit of distressing news works like a cataract, darkening our outlook by giving everything a dirty yellowish-brown cast, clouding our vision with despair. One thing I’m grateful for this year is cataract surgery, which has given me a literally brighter view of so many birds I love, and a useful metaphor, too.

How my cataract distorts color

Gratitude is a kind of cataract surgery, clearing our eyes to see what we value with more brilliance and clarity. And the more clearly we see treasured things in peril, the more clearly we will notice the hazards they face, propelling us to action. 

What else out there fills me with gratitude? In late November, one particular individual Laysan Albatross known as “Wisdom,” who was originally banded early in 1956 when she was a minimum of 5 years old, arrived back on Midway on her breeding territory. Wisdom is the only wild bird known to be older than I am—at least 69 years old right now. Her mate arrived late this year, so they may be taking a gap year, something most albatross pairs do every other year—Wisdom, overachiever, has raised a chick every year since 2006, and has fledged at least 35 chicks over her lifetime. It’s endlessly pleasing to realize there’s a bird out there older than I am, and that she’s still doing her part to ensure that Laysan Albatrosses exist well into the future. 

Wisdom (left) and her mate Akeakamai on 9 November 2019; photo by Emily Jankowski / USFWS

In 2019, I spent time with lots of amazing birds. All the way down in the Darien area of Panama, close to the Columbian border, I saw my lifer Harpy Eagle...

Harpy Eagle

....and a host of wondrous tropical birds between there and Panama City. (Hover your mouse above any photo or click on it for Flickr to identify it for you.)

Blue Cotinga

White-fronted Nunbird

Black-throated Trogon

Blue-chested Hummingbird

Blue Dacnis

Striated Heron

Rufescent Tiger-Heron

Rufous-capped Warbler

Barred Antshrike

In Maine, for the first time in my life, I got to see and photograph baby Piping Plovers—my photos will be among my very most treasured as long as I live. 

Piping Plover chicks

Piping Plover adult with chicks

And 2019 turned out to be a banner year for the species in Maine, where a minimum of 165 baby plovers fledged, a 29 percent increase over last year—and last year’s numbers were 30 percent higher than 2018. And in Chicago, a pair successfully brought off two chicks in the city for the first time since 1955.

When I was in Maine, I also took my prettiest Bobolink photos ever.

Bobolink

And in Wisconsin, for the first time in my life, I photographed a family of Le Conte’s Sparrows, in the very field where I used to bird when my mother-in-law lived there.

Le Conte's Sparrow

Le Conte's Sparrow

Ryan Brady documented more Le Conte’s Sparrows there than anywhere else on Wisconsin’s Breeding Bird Atlas—that fills me with gratitude for those wonderful birds, for that beloved field, and for Ryan Brady’s hard work. Grassland birds are declining more precipitously than most other groups, so I feel a deep despair every May and June when I drive past newly mowed fields—crows, ravens, and gulls circling overhead anticipate the feast of mangled nestlings below. But knowing that there are pockets of thriving grassland birds here and there gives hope that if we can educate more landowners to do things right, there will still be Bobolinks and Le Conte’s Sparrows around to populate improved habitat. 

Le Conte's Sparrow

This year I had the enormous thrill of being invited to speak for groups from northern Maine to southeastern Arizona, enjoying birds ranging from Atlantic Puffins and Arctic Terns to Elegant Trogons and Five-striped Sparrows. (The only one I took a photo of this year was the trogon, and I've never photographed a Five-striped Sparrow.)

Atlantic Puffin

Arctic Tern

Elegant Trogon

Photo by Dominic Sherony, via Wikipedia, Creative Commons
On all those trips, I also got to spend lots of time with lots of inspiring people doing inspiring things to help protect birds.

Russ impressed quite a few of our high school friends at our 50-year reunion by telling them I was invited to speak at Harvard. Of course, I had to make it clear that I wasn’t invited by Harvard, but by the storied Brookline Bird Club, but either way, it was quite a thrill! 

Russ and I took two other trips together, too. We went to Florida to visit our son; in Orlando we saw the very first Limpkin chicks I've ever seen...

Limpkin chick

... in the Everglades we saw baby Anhingas...

Baby Anhinga

Anhinga chick

Baby Anhinga

... and in Saddlebunch Key, I got photos and a recording of a couple of Mangrove Cuckoos.

Mangrove Cuckoo

Then we went to California so Russ could for the first and last time go on a Debi Shearwater birding pelagic trip before she retired this year.

Debi Shearwater and me!
Debi Shearwater and me in Hungary in 2014.
We also visited the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa to see my letter to Charles Schulz and his response to me in the Woodstock exhibit.

Laura at the Charles M. Schulz Museum's Peace, Love, and Woodstock exhibit

So 2019 was an absolutely wonderful year for me, one of the most wonderful, start to finish, that I’ve been given. I’m ever so grateful for the 673 species of birds I’ve seen this year, a full 60 of them lifers. I end the year in good health, with better eyesight than ever, and my husband, family, and little dog Pip all well and happy. So gratitude for all this will light my path in 2020 as I work as hard as ever to protect all these treasures I’ve been given.

Family Portrait

Monday, December 30, 2019

The End of Mitigation

Black Skimmers

Ever since the Migratory Bird Act was enacted in 1918, it’s been illegal for people to “take” wildlife, defined as killing it, bringing it into captivity, disturbing it during nesting, or keeping body parts, pelts, feathers, nests, or eggs. For many decades, enforcement has been in the hands of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, except for some provisions allowing private landowners to kill wild predators and “nuisance animals”—those killings are now enforced by the Wildlife Services division of the US Department of Agriculture, which is focused on profitability for landowners, with very little interest in or expertise about wildlife. 

Red-winged Blackbird
Red-winged Blackbirds destroy about 2 percent of the nation's sunflower crop each year (though some individual farmers lose much more of their crop to them). This loss amounts to $7 to 10 million annually. Millions of Red-winged Blackbirds are baited and poisoned every spring by sunflower seed farmers, mostly in western Minnesota and the Dakotas. There is no research to support that these spring migrants are involved in the late summer damage to sunflower crops, and there is evidence that these poisoned birds in turn poison scavengers and predators. It would be more effective to recompense farmers for their losses than to kill birds not necessarily even involved in the losses. But this has been the policy for well over a decade, with the USDA's Wildlife Services, not the US Fish and Wildlife Service, in charge. 
We have just about all been involved in what is called “incidental take,” when a bird is killed by our car, one of our pets, or in a window collision at our house.

Dead Blackburnian Warbler
"Incidental take": a tragic bird death at one of my own windows. (Blackburnian Warbler)

The “incidental take” by some businesses, especially developers and the oil and gas extraction industries, is orders of magnitude larger than that by individuals. For a couple of generations now, we have expected that when individuals, corporations, and federal, state, and local governments are involved in projects that will have a heavy toll on wildlife or damage critical habitat, they must somehow mitigate for what they destroy.

One of my favorite birding spots between my house and Port Wing, Wisconsin, the Roy Johnson Wetland, is a “mitigation wetland,” put under management by the Wisconsin DNR to replace destroyed wetland elsewhere, and much of the quality habitat paid for by Duck Stamp dollars is also mitigation wetland. Developers of course hate having to pay out of their profits for this mitigation, doing it only when the savings from killing birds or setting a project in the middle of important habitat makes paying for the mitigation worth it.

Northern Harrier
This Northern Harrier flying over the Roy Johnson Wetland is one of a great many species that require wetlands for survival. When wetlands are destroyed, mitigation projects have at least compensated somewhat for the losses. 
But suddenly, things are changing so developers and others can make their profits at the expense of wildlife and habitat with no repercussions at all. Last year, the State of Virginia developed plans for a major bridge and tunnel expansion in the tidewaters of the Chesapeake Bay, where the project would literally plow under the nesting grounds for 25,000 Black Skimmers, Royal Terns, and other protected species.

Royal Tern

To mitigate the loss they developed plans for creating an artificial island where the birds could safely nest. But in June, thanks to brand new rules eliminating all criminal penalties for “incidental” migratory bird deaths in the course of “normal business,” the federal government said creating this island was “purely voluntary,” so the state decided not to bother mitigating the habitat loss. The New York Times is reporting that this is an actual trend—the federal government is actively discouraging local governments and businesses from taking any precautionary or mitigating measures to protect birds.

If that isn’t bad enough, the Fish and Wildlife Service told a Wyoming-based oil company that it no longer had to report any bird deaths to the agency. When residents of a Michigan apartment building complained about birds being killed as workers put up siding and gutters, Fish and Wildlife replied that it was fine as long as the purpose of the activity wasn’t specifically to hurt birds. And when a homeowners’ association in Arizona complained that a developer had refused to safely remove nesting burrowing owls from a nearby lot, Fish and Wildlife said that, because of the new legal interpretation, it would not compel the developer to act. 

Burrowing Owl

The Fish and Wildlife Service quietly made this enormous policy change in 2017, the administration claiming it is no more than a simple technical clarification to the Migratory Bird Act. It was reported at the time, but no one paid much attention except a handful of organizations that are suing to demand enforcement of the law. In the meantime, as we face huge losses of birds, the federal agency charged with protecting wildlife will no longer be doing the job most of us have long expected it to do.

Sarah Greenberger, senior vice president for conservation at Audubon, was quoted by the New York Times saying:
This is how we lose birds. We don’t lose them a billion at a time. We lose them from small incidents happening repeatedly over the vast geography of our country. 
What can we do about it? We need to show the same full-throated bipartisanship for conservation we did in the 1970s when we enacted so much environmental legislation to begin with. Dr. Seuss put it pretty clearly, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Piping Plover mother and chick