AUTHOR BLOG: Saving Saltmarsh Sparrows will help other species, too

Chris Elphick

Linked paper: Evaluating a focal-species approach for tidal marsh bird conservation in the northeastern United States by B.T. Klingbeil, J.B. Cohen, M.D. Correll, C.R. Field, T.P. Hodgman, A.I. Kovach, B.J. Olsen, W.G. Shriver, W.A. Wiest, and C.S. Elphick, The Condor: Ornithological Applications 120:4, November 2018.

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Salt marshes in the northeastern USA are getting wetter, increasing the risk that the nests of marsh-breeding birds will be flooded during high tides. Photo credit: Chris Elphick

Saltmarsh Sparrows are in trouble. They are found only in the eastern USA and—as their name suggests—occur only in salt marshes, nesting primarily in the higher elevation portions that are dominated by saltmeadow cordgrass (Spartina patens) and where the risk of nests flooding is lowest. With rising sea levels and increasing storm surges, however, that risk is rising. Since the 1990s, the global population of Saltmarsh Sparrows has declined by about 75%, and demographic studies suggest that extinction is likely by mid-century. Marshes are also changing, with a shift towards vegetation characteristic of wetter conditions, supporting the idea that sea level rise is responsible and that flooding risk for the birds is increasing.

The good news is that people are starting to take notice. The species is considered globally endangered by BirdLife International, it is being assessed for listing under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA), and it is the subject of considerable attention by the Atlantic Coast Joint Venture, which represents most of the key management agencies in states where the species occurs.

Saltmarsh Sparrows, of course, are not the only birds that use salt marshes in eastern North America. Black Rails have already disappeared from much of the East and were recently proposed for ESA listing; Clapper Rails and Nelson’s Sparrows are also declining in the northeastern USA, the only region for which there are comprehensive, large-scale surveys; and other salt marsh specialists nest in similar conditions and will potentially face a similar fate in coming decades.

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Conservation for Saltmarsh Sparrows (right) is likely to benefit most other salt marsh specialist birds nesting in the northeastern USA. An exception is Nelson’s Sparrow (left), which has limited range overlap and will require separate conservation actions. Photo credit: Chris Elphick

A key question, then, is whether conservation focused on Saltmarsh Sparrows will also benefit these other species. Conservation biologists have long debated the pros and cons of management focused on individual species. Arguably, centering conservation on an individual species can help garner conservation support that will have ecosystem-wide benefits. At the same time, if the chosen species does not adequately represent the entire suite of species (or other ecosystem properties) that one wants to protect, then the endeavor will fail. In our new paper, we set out to test whether Saltmarsh Sparrows can play this role.

Using the conservation planning software MARXAN, we prioritized salt marsh patches for five bird species that nest in salt marshes across the ten states in which Saltmarsh Sparrows breed.  These species are those most dependent on salt marshes and most likely to be affected by changes to the habitat. (Black Rail, the sixth species in this group, is now so rare in these states that it was not included.) We found that land protection scenarios focused on Saltmarsh Sparrows are more effective at protecting the entire suite of species than scenarios focused on any of the other individual species. Conserving areas that support the bulk of the current Saltmarsh Sparrow population will also protect large (>50,000) populations of all other species except Nelson’s Sparrow. Similar planning based on Clapper Rails—the other declining species—performed much worse, while multispecies combinations performed no better. Nelson’s Sparrow would not be protected well by prioritizing based on any of the proxy species considered, which is not surprising, given the limited overlap between the range of this species and the other four.

Of course, showing that conservation focused on Saltmarsh Sparrows will benefit other salt marsh specialist birds is only a partial answer to the question of whether they are a good focal species for long-term conservation of salt marshes. Birds that use these marshes outside the breeding season, other types of organisms, and the full range of other ecosystem services that marshes provide also warrant consideration. It is clear, however, that work designed to protect sparrows has good potential to benefit some of the other high-priority conservation targets. And given the reliance of Saltmarsh Sparrows on high-elevation marsh—the portion of the system that seems to be most vulnerable to losses due to sea level rise—it appears likely that other organisms that use this habitat will also benefit.

AUTHOR BLOG: Manage hunting and the rare can once again become the common

Lucía Vargas and Andrew Whitworth

Linked paper: Secondary forest is utilized by Great Curassows (Crax rubra) and Great Tinamous (Tinamus major) in the absence of hunting by A. Whitworth, C. Beirne, E. Flatt, R.P. Huarcaya, J.C.C. Diaz, A. Forsyth, P.K. Molnár, and J.S.V. Soto, The Condor: Ornithological Applications 120:4, November 2018.

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Great Curassows and Great Tinamous are tropical gamebird species that are highly threatened by hunting and deforestation.

In one of the most biologically diverse rainforests of the world, the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica, curassows and tinamous are thriving by hiding from hunters in protected, regenerating forests. These forests were once grasslands and disturbed forests that were hunted out. We have found that conservation efforts by the nonprofit group Osa Conservation (www.osaconservation.org) have been efficient for protecting these stunning gamebirds.

Game birds are important seed dispersers, control insect populations, and are food for many mid-level and apex predators. They provide social and economic services and are a source of protein, materials, and economic income from birding tourism. However, deforestation and hunting are leading causes of declines in populations of game birds such as the Great Curassow (Crax rubra) and the Great Tinamou (Tinamus major). The Great Curassow, for example, had lost 69% of its original habitat by 1977, and hunting was responsible for greatly reducing many populations, to the point of local extirpation in some regions. We wanted to know how valuable recovering habitats can be for such species, providing that hunted is controlled.

The field work to set up 60 camera traps during the very hot dry season was intense. It can be tricky to determine what factors play a role in habitat choice, but we had an ideal study site. Our grid covered a relatively small protected area (free from hunting) that comprises several different habitat types: old-growth primary forest, naturally regenerating secondary forest, recovering secondary plantation forests, and active agricultural land. Moreover, we analyzed the influence of roads, rivers, elevation, and whether cameras were located on or off trails, all of which are known to influence the distribution of rainforest wildlife.

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Camera traps minimize researcher–bird contact and provide an effective means to study elusive ground-dwelling bird species. Here, Eleanor Flatt from Osa Conservation’s team, a co-author of the article, sets up a camera.

Both bird species chose to use secondary growth forest frequently, despite being described in other studies as primary forest specialist species. This is likely due to the eradication of hunting since the establishment of Osa Conservation in 2002, the close proximity of remaining old-growth forest tracts, and the fact that the regenerating forests have had over 45 years to recover.

One surprising result from our data was that Great Curassows are more likely to be seen near roads. This makes sense when we consider that they are likely benefitting from a higher abundance of fruiting trees, but they must be careful, because this could also result in what is known as an ecological trap. If hunting were to return, roads would provide easy access for hunters. On the other hand, although the tinamous utilized all types of forest, they very clearly avoided agricultural land. Even the forest strips in farm areas are not sufficiently safe and cozy for the Great Tinamou—they like it cool, dark, and well-connected.

Our study demonstrates the significance of protecting wildlife from hunting through understanding spatial behavior. What would the results be like at another site? In a place with no source population nearby to allow for natural recolonization as the forests recover, could we reintroduce and reestablish these species once hunting has been controlled?

Their importance as rainforest seed dispersers will affect the pathway of regeneration and growth of secondary forests, and their presence will also provide food for predators like ocelots and margays, assisting their recovery as well. “Secondary” forests don’t mean second-rate habitat—instead, they mean that wildlife and people have a second chance.

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AUTHOR BLOG: A new hummingbird species in Ecuador

Juan Freile

Linked paper: A striking, critically endangered, new species of hillstar (Trochilidae: Oreotrochilus) from the southwestern Andes of Ecuador by F. Sornoza-Molina, J.F. Freile, J. Nilsson, N. Krabbe, and E. Bonaccorso, The Auk: Ornithological Advances 135:4, October 2018.

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Adult male (above left, center right), adult female (below), and immature male (above right) Oreotrochilus cyanolaemus. Image credit: P. Greenfield.

Last year a new hummingbird species was unexpectedly discovered on a seldom-visited mountain top in southern Ecuador. A brief visit to the rocky outcrops of Cerro de Arcos in the southern province of El Oro produced a photographic record that rang a bell: a mysterious immature male clearly assignable to the genus Oreotrochilus, the hillstars, which included six species at the time. A few days later, an adult male was captured in another photo, and a week after that, several males and females were observed and a handful collected for scientific purposes.

Such an outstanding discovery needed a thorough assessment to understand the taxonomic status and phylogenetic relationships of the putative new species and their evolutionary implications for the genus Oreotrochilus. This genus is remarkable in being the one that reaches the highest elevations: records above 4,500 meters, with a mean of 3,600 meters above sea level. As such, these hummingbirds need a very special set of physiological and behavioral adaptations to feed on the scarce nectar resources available. One plant in particular is extremely important for the hillstars—the spiny-leaved Chuquiragua, with its fire-orange flowers.

The newly discovered hillstar of southern Ecuador is not an exception in its feeding associations. In fact, its geographic range seems to be shaped by the availability of Chuquiragua in a very restricted region between the geographic ranges of the Ecuadorian Hillstar, Oreotrochilus chimborazo, found in Ecuador and extreme southern Colombia, and the Green-headed Hillstar, Oreotrochilus stolzmanni, found in Peru and extreme southern Ecuador.

The latter species is likely the closest relative to the new species, sharing an overall plumage pattern and being very similar genetically. But a single striking characteristic sets them apart: the Green-headed Hillstar has a glittering lime-green throat patch, or gorget, whereas the gorget in the new species is a glittering deep blue. Given that gorgets are likely used in courtship displays by males, the strikingly different color suggests that reproductive isolation is effectively segregating these taxa.

Being extremely restricted in distribution, confined to a few mountain tops where habitat degradation is dramatic, the conservation status of this new hillstar seems critical. No conservation projects exist across its tiny range; on the contrary, the agricultural boundary is progressing, cattle graze free in the few natural grasslands that remain, burns are frequent every windy summer, and not a few mining concession cover the area. Urgent research and conservation actions are on the way, but there is little time left.

AUTHOR BLOG: “Bird-in-the-middle”—a mid-elevation tropical species stuck in limbo

Fabio Berzaghi & John Bates

Linked paper: Comparative niche modeling of two bush-shrikes (Laniarius) and the conservation of mid-elevation Afromontane forests of the Albertine Rift by F. Berzaghi, J.E. Engel, A.J. Plumptre, H. Mugabe, D. Kujirakwinja, S. Ayebare, and J.M. Bates, The Condor: Ornithological Applications 120:4, October 2018.

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A search through the tropical forest literature for “mid-elevation forests” reveals relatively few results compared to a search for high-elevation or lowland forests, and looking at a map of protected areas and land cover in mountainous tropical regions makes it clear why. For example, in the African Albertine Rift, most national parks tend to be in high elevation areas where slopes are steep and land conversion for human use is more difficult. As we move down the slopes, the habitat starts degrading until we arrive in the lowlands, where almost no intact habitat remains, particularly on the eastern side of the Rift.

In 2010, Voelker et al. described a new species of bush-strike, the Willard’s Sooty Boubou (Laniarius willardi), and noticed that this species occurs at lower elevations than its sister species, the Mountain Sooty Boubou (Lanarius poensis). We were thus wondering how much habitat was left for this mid-elevation species, knowing that in this region lower-elevation forests are degraded or have been converted to agriculture. Using niche modeling and land cover data, we discovered that these two species of birds reside at different elevations across a small portion of montane Africa, overlapping only in part. Unfortunately, the habitat for L. willardi has been greatly reduced, because mid-elevation forests are outside protected areas and national parks. L. willardi may not be able to move to higher elevations, as its preferred environmental conditions are between 1200 and 1900 meters; a large portion of its suitable habitat is found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Itombwe Plateau, technically a protected area but problematic to protect.

The plight of L. willardi is probably similar to that of many other mid- and low-elevation species in the area. Even though our results are not such good news for birds and other mid-elevation species in the region, we also want to highlight the importance of scientific collaborations with local researchers and conservation units. These collaborations help us define habitats and species in need of attention. Importantly, the authors of our study are a combination of Africans and non-Africans, with a range of research foci including ornithology and conservation but also niche modeling and bioinformatics. The data used in our study are based on both museum specimens (historical and modern) and modern field observations, which were carried out by teams that always included African students and scientists from the countries where the data were collected. Conservation can only be successful in the long run if in-country capacity for conservation science is developed around the world.

The discovery of L. willardi and its description were made possible through modern scientific collection during collaborations between local Albertine Rift ornithologists and the Field Museum. Data from such modern collections will help clarify lingering concerns in the taxonomic community (particularly Birdlife International and the IUCN) in regards to the status of these two species relative to other black boubous occurring far to the west in the Cameroonian Highlands. Work like this has great value, because it allows highlighting issues of conservation concern at both regional and local scales. Each region of the Albertine Rift has its own history and ongoing issues with deforestation, instability and protection. There is no “one size fits all” solution to conservation in the Albertine Rift, but this paper helps emphasize that there is regional expertise in the form of researchers and conservation professionals who will make a difference. Opportunities to work with international colleagues to combine conservation and science, as in this paper, will be instrumental in building efforts to protect the incredible biota of this wonderful region.

AUTHOR BLOG: What time do baby birds leave home?

Christine Ribic

Linked paper: Diel fledging patterns among grassland passerines: Relative impacts of energetics and predation risk by C.A. Ribic, C.S. Ng, N. Koper, K. Ellison, P.J. Pietz, and D.J. Rugg, The Condor: Ornithological Applications 120:4, October 2018.

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A Grasshopper Sparrow chick leaves its nest. Credit: C. Ribic, USGS

We know that human kids grow, mature, and gradually move towards a life that is independent of their parents’ home.  The same is true for baby birds: they also have to decide when the time is right to leave the nest and start on their journey to independence. This seems to involve a balancing act between making sure they are big and healthy enough to survive independently, while leaving the nest quickly to avoid predators. Nests are busy places where chicks beg for food and parents are constantly coming and going with food deliveries. All of this activity could easily draw predators to the nest! The timing of chicks leaving the nest (fledging) isn’t well understood, particularly for birds that live in grasslands, many of which are threatened or endangered due to habitat loss.

Our new research focused on a variety of grassland songbirds, such as meadowlarks, sparrows, and longspurs. We found that the time baby birds leave the nest has more to do with having enough food (energetics) than avoiding predators. This is surprising because research on birds nesting in shrubs says that risk of predation is the most important thing affecting when chicks leave the nest. This suggests that nests in grasslands (hidden on the ground with protective cover from surrounding grasses and a few low shrubs) face different risks than nests placed in shrubs.

We found that grassland chicks can start to leave anytime throughout the day and when they leave depends on what species they are. Some chicks, like Clay-colored Sparrow and Grasshopper Sparrow, usually left the nest in the early morning, while Eastern Meadowlark and Chestnut-collared Longspur left closer to mid-morning. But sometimes chicks delayed leaving until the afternoon, with their siblings waiting until the next day to depart. The time it takes for all the chicks to leave a nest can be several hours to more than a day! Maybe some chicks are taking advantage of their siblings’ early departures to get more food and attention from mom and dad before they finally leave, too.

Measuring fledging time can be tricky because chicks run in and out of the nest multiple times before leaving for good. We don’t know why they do this; maybe they are exploring their world and gaining confidence before leaving to brave the world outside their home. Remember these birds have only been alive for a week and a half or so!  Regardless, it’s a bit like kids going off for college but returning for school breaks … nestlings may leave and return repeatedly before fully fledging. Fledging is not nearly as simple as people think it is!

Understanding the fledging process allows us to better understand the biology of grassland birds. Learning about the pressures they face in their daily lives lets us understand what threats they face and how those threats may change as people alter grasslands. Grassland birds are declining more than birds of any other habitat type across North America. Research like this is part of understanding why they are declining and what we can do to help them recover.