birds

The Monument-Worthy Birds of Cotoni-Coast Dairies: An Analysis

Introduction and Background

Obama’s Proclamation giving National Monument status to Cotoni Coast Dairies included protection for an interesting list of birds: a challenge or a nose-thumbing to preservationists? We don’t know, but in this essay I present both perspectives. First, a reminder that experts presented the President with a science-based white paper suggesting a list of sensitive natural resources worthy of protection by his Proclamation; most local conservation organizations wrote letters supporting this proposal. The white paper included 7 species of birds that are protected by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, but not protected under the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA)…and so, without mention in the Monument Proclamation, might not be protected on BLM lands:

  • American peregrine falcon –  Falco peregrinus anatum– CA fully protected
  • Bryant’s savannah sparrow – Passerculus sandwichensis alaudinus – CA Species of Special Concern
  • Ferruginous hawk – Buteo regalis – California Watch List (wintering)
  • Grasshopper sparrow – Ammodramus savannarum – CA Species of Special Concern (nesting)
  • Northern harrier – Circus cyaneus – CA Species of Special Concern (nesting)
  • Olive-sided flycatcher-Contopus cooperi – CA Species of Special Concern (nesting)
  • Short-eared owl –Asio flammeus – CA Species of Special Concern (nesting)
  • Tricolored blackbird – Agelaius tricolor – CA Species of Special Concern (nesting colony)
  •  White-tailed kite – Elanus leucurus – CA Fully Protected (nesting)

The white paper also included recommendation for recognition of species that are federally protected as long as they are on California BLM’s sensitive animal list:

  • Burrowing owl – Athene cunicularia – BLM CA sensitive animal; CA Species of Special Concern
  • Golden eagle – Aquila chrysaetos – BLM CA sensitive animal; CA fully protected

And, experts mentioned two other notable bird species that frequent the property:

  • Red-tailed hawk – Buteo jamaicensis – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Short-eared owl – Asio flammeus – IUCN Status: Least Concern

At first glance… the Proclamation was a moderate success for bird conservation- experts proposed 11 bird species for the Proclamation, and the President’s Proclamation included 9 bird species. But, the Proclamation included just two of the species experts proposed: the white tailed kite and peregrine falcon. Besides the kite and falcon, the other species listed by the President are common and widespread enough to not warrant any conservation concern. Here are the other 7 birds listed in the President’s proclamation, along with their listing status:

  • American kestrel – Falco sparverius – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Black swift – Cypseloides niger – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Cooper’s hawk – Accipiter cooperii- IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Downy woodpecker – Picoides pubescens – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Orange-crowned warbler – Oreothlypis celata – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Tree swallow – Tachycineta bicolor – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Wilson’s warbler – Cardellina pusilla – IUCN Status: Least Concern

Optimism: A Presidential Challenge?

An optimist might consider the list of birds in the President’s Proclamation could be seen as a challenge to biologists, preservationists, and BLM. The President might have been truly insightful, providing protection for species common enough across the property for scientifically sound analysis of the impacts of varying levels of future visitor use. Only when there are enough nesting attempts of a bird species can we compare nest success in areas with and without visitors, or between areas of varying visitor use types/intensities.

With all of the biota listed in the Proclamation, BLM is required to provide protections in their management plans, setting scientifically-based preservation targets, and monitoring the status of these resources over time. Establishing preservation targets for species will involve developing various hypotheses, such as:

  • What is a minimum viable population size?
  • How many individuals are necessary to maintain their ecological functions?
  • How many individuals are necessary in various parts of the property to ensure that the public has an opportunity to view them?

It is likely that at least some of these birds are common enough across the property right now, when the property is seeing very little visitor use, that experts can inventory their densities and then notice change over time in response to varying management decisions. This would not be the case with more uncommon species.

I should point out that this optimistic viewpoint is difficult to completely uphold because the President did not include the expert’s suggestion of olive-sided flycatcher in his Proclamation: this is a species common enough on the property to meet the criteria outlined above.

Pessimism: A Presidential Nose-Thumbing?

The pessimist might consider it a purposeful snub by the President when he ignored most of the birds recommended by experts for inclusion in the Proclamation. He might have various reasons for snubbing the experts.

For instance, in recent Santa Cruz County history, and with the Monument Campaign in particular, we have seen political leaders leveraging and emphasizing the divide between pro-access, maximum use, recreation advocates and conservation advocates. If the pro-access, maximum use advocates had leverage with the President, they may have advised that inclusion of the conservation community’s recommendations as something to ignore.

An additional and perhaps additive possibility is that the President’s advisers were opposed to preservation of grassland habitat on the property, possibly because of the near necessity of using livestock grazing to maintain that habitat. Despite a growing scientific consensus, some maintain that California’s coastal grasslands are largely ‘unnatural’ relicts of human management, evidenced by their ‘natural’ succession into mixed coniferous forests. And, while fire is sporadically used to maintain California’s coastal grasslands, livestock grazing is more common. Many of the bird species that experts recommended for inclusion are dependent on extensive grassland habitats; some may even require livestock grazing to maintain structure that is conducive to nesting success. The reader is no doubt cognizant of some of the environmental community’s opposition to livestock grazing on conservation lands, and this philosophy could well have been in play when advisers helped the President to draft his Proclamation. None of the birds included in the President’s Proclamation rely on grassland habitat.

A final additional and perhaps additive possibility is the Presidential adviser philosophy that the protection of grassland dependent birds might interfere with maximizing visitor use of the property. Grasslands on the property offer the easiest opportunities for access to the many visitors desiring expeditious photographic opportunities. And so, perhaps the President’s advisers refused protection of grassland birds in order to more readily allow for maximum visitor use.

Concluding Remarks

The future will help inform the prevalence of the optimistic or pessimistic interpretation of the President’s motivations for naming the Monument-worthy birds of Cotoni Coast Dairies in his Proclamation. With luck, we may be able to have conversations with the President’s Proclamation advisers to learn, first-hand their rationale. And, we may gather more clues in the advocacy of Monument Campaign organizers and others during the planning process for the property. We will share our discoveries to help science-based conservationists better engage with similar situations in the United States. And, we will use what we learn to improve our strategy moving forward with preserving the sensitive natural resources of Cotoni Coast Dairies.

Postscripts

  1.  One reviewer suggested an alternative possibility for the President’s advisers largely avoiding the experts’ list of sensitive bird species: the advisers may have not recognized the credibility or legitimacy of the source of information.
  2. Another reviewer pointed out the irony of the Proclamation recognition of indigenous peoples and yet the lack of inclusion of those peoples’ iconic birds: eagle and hummingbird.
  3. Bird experts point out that the President’s inclusion of American kestrel was cogent because of a regional decline in nesting, a phenomenon that isn’t explicable but warrants attention.
  4. Bird experts also point out that the President’s inclusion of black swift is curious because the species has never been known to nest on the property, and nesting areas anywhere nearby have long been abandoned.

Robin Irruption!

 

American Robin

Licensed under CC: Photo by Flickr user Lucina M. All rights revert to originator.

Thousands of robins are visiting California’s central coast: lots more than usual, an ‘irruption.’ Unfortunately, I lack records of the timing of their arrival, but many people are talking about their astounding numbers, including: Feynner at Big Creek Reserv
e in Big Sur and Brock Dolman in Occidental, Sonoma County…and birders with the Monterey Bay Birds list serve. Feynner’s says maybe they came this way to avoid big burned areas inland and North. I counted 200 in about 10 minutes, flying in squeaky-talkative groups across a North Coast Santa Cruz field. This has been a daily occurrence for many weeks.

I have spent a little while standing among flocks of hundreds of robins in the fields and orchards at Molino Creek Farm, watching them. They scratch the mulch under the apple trees or poke at the ground in the fields, each bird holding their own few square feet. Some birds rest, alert high in nearby branches in two’s and three’s. I hear the crackle crackle crackle-squeak of a perturbed bird chasing away another, too close; they chatter their beaks by clicking them together rapidly when they seem especially territorial in a favorite food spot. These birds are apt to live up to the cliché, a worm hanging sideways out of their mouths.

Robins were Rachel Carson’s indicator species for the ‘Silent Spring.’ In 1950’s Michigan, researchers documented that elm leaves containing a pesticide applied to battle Dutch elm disease were digested by earthworms, and the earthworms by Robins. Pesticide poisoning made the Robins’ egg shells too thin, and they faced reproductive failure at a landscape level.  Mornings got quieter and quieter in the Great Lakes states as the friendly dawn chorus of Robins quickly faded. Thanks to Rachel Carson and a host of others, America woke up and stopped large-scale broadcast spraying of pesticides.

Robins seem especially wise. Their gaze is intent. Someone once saw an American Robin sweep leaves aside using a twig- tool using intelligence. I imagine their vocal chatter is carrying lots of information. Their friendliness towards me suggests that they know I don’t eat them- people once hunted them for food. They are still food, but for other species: while hiking the other day, I walked towards a cacophony of Robin voices. As I do for all flocks, I spoke gently saying “don’t worry about me!” But, they wouldn’t stop and, after another dozen strides at my feet was a freshly dead Robin, neck broken, just killed…probably by a Cooper Hawk. Cooper Hawk and Sharp Shinned Hawks must be well fed this winter.

I’m pleased to have witnessed this Robin irruption, reminding me that terrestrial ecosystems of the Western United States can still produce bird abundance. This is the third irruption in recent years. 2014 was the Varied Thrush irruption. Winter of 2012/2013 was a Red Breasted Nuthatch irruption. What next? Don’t miss this one! Take time at dawn or dusk in the fields around the Central Coast to see the many Robins and hear their “chock chock” talk. (Check out their big beaks, too!).