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A Bird Celebration REVOLUTION is Happening Right Now in the Amazon

Fostering a love of birds through education in the Amazon, CONAPAC is increasing environmental awareness and jump-starting a birding revolution in Peru.

By Brian Landever

More than 1000 students from 26 remote Amazon rainforest communities gathered this September to participate in the first-ever bird festivals in the Peruvian department of Loreto. They awoke early, traveled to neighboring communities along the Amazon rivers, and spent the days presenting elaborate performances related to bird conservation and discussing the impact of birding in their communities.

Activities celebrating birds and birding have gained momentum since 2017, and a revolution is building. It’s a celebrative kind, raising spirits and enhancing the cultural arts.  Children are showing excitement for the natural world, and their parents are following suit.  It’s in good time; Peru has been listed as the world’s best country for bird watching, and is second worldwide for most species of birds registered. Most importantly, these activities are showing concrete increases in bird conservation.

The people in this region are strong, accustomed to the intense Amazon sun, and mainly fish and grow crops for sustenance. Children and adults cheerfully play sports every afternoon, and couples help one another with fishing. Their music with flutes, drums, and rattles, their regional dances related to animals, and their stories about the meanings behind bird encounters are just a few aspects of the people’s rich culture. Their homes may not have electricity or running water, and are over 100 kilometers from the closest city, but the warmth and comfort they have amongst one another in communities makes international visitors appreciate coming here.

Although many visitors return frequently, until recently, the forest was not commonly explored for leisure; entering only when hunting was the priority. That’s all changing now. Now, there’s a greater awareness of how the birds are important to the environment, developing the people’s pride for their home.

Education is key

Thousands of K-12 students became involved in this movement over the past several years. Their teachers are leading outdoor, project-based classes to inform them of the region’s bird species’ habitat, behavior, nesting, diet, cultural stories, and more. And their new curriculum is paying off.

During these festivals, students share what they are learning in unique ways. Some students perform activist theatre, portraying stories of birds fighting to retake their habitat after being encroached upon. Other students draw finely detailed portraits of the birds with masterful skill, and still others have crafted replica bird nests to explore nest functions. One high school senior rapped about birds’ beauty and the tragedy of losing them. Another 14-year-old young woman’s dramatic poetry about respecting birds in nature left watchers teary-eyed. Groups of younger students were happy to be included too, sharing well-practiced songs about birds’ beauty. One mother even rose to share an unsolicited folk song about the Blue-gray Tanager.

The impact of this is visible. Children are heard stopping their classmates from killing birds, and their parents report no longer hunting birds in unsustainable ways.  

Behind these activities are 250 dedicated teachers, Peruvian NGO CONAPAC, led by Brian Landever, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (CLO), represented by Karen A. Purcell and Marilu López Fretts. They have been co-creating training workshops each year since 2017, resulting in dozens of dynamic lesson plans, materials, communication methods, and culturally embedded evaluations all focused on keeping enthusiasm strong.

Building a revolution

In 2017, the first ornithology training workshop was held for teachers from these rural communities. Karen A. Purcell and the “Celebrate Birds” citizen science team began co-developing materials, and soon launched an engaging, fun, culturally sensitive educational program focused on bird conservation.

In 2018, teachers began notably increasing their involvement following bi-monthly meetings with the CLO team. The large WhatsApp group began to receive hundreds of photos posted weekly by the teachers, excited to share their progress, in turn motivating one another.

In early 2019, there was no doubt that the program had matured when students presented unsolicited, elaborate skits and dances related to bird conservation during CONAPAC’s visits to their communities. Thousands of photos of class developments began to fill the WhatsApp group monthly, and the program supporters, JBQ Charitable Foundation and the Amazon Binocular Project, have stated they could not have used their donations in a better manner.

When the last workshop was held in June 2019, at Explorama’s lodges, located on the Amazon and Napo rivers, the teachers themselves opened the event. They had prepared creative songs, photo-realistic sketches of birds, and enthusiastic presentations of what they had accomplished to date with their students. The entire week was festive, productive, and further prepared the teachers with strong class curriculum. CONAPAC’s footage of these classes on its YouTube channel effectively capture the enthusiasm of these events.

In turn, the students are receiving motivated class sessions and can see that they have become part of something that is expanding, and being appreciated worldwide. The culmination of this, five bird festivals that took place in September, has surpassed everyone’s expectations.

Moving forward

During these festivals, the perspectives of local people were inquired into more closely in open conversations following each morning’s presentations. Discussions amongst parents, community authorities, students, and teachers with CLO are building an understanding of the movement’s impact on people’s lives and environment.

New, exciting initiatives were also shared during the festivals, including long trails, or “senderos,” complete with benches and gazebos, built by parents for children to birdwatch in the forest, building their understanding of how birds live in nature.

Right now, thorough, co-created program evaluations are being led by CLO to analyze the progress being made. The classes continue regularly, and bird clubs are meeting regularly amongst the most interested students from each community. Eight birdwatching trails have been developed, and more are being planned. The first community-led bird festival in Loreto was held on October 30th, 2019, uniting 11 communities and 600 people, leading to a press report.

The potential for this program to have a positive environmental and social impact is clear. As it gains more attention in Peru and internationally, it will add momentum to the global movement to respect and conserve the Amazon rainforest. For bird appreciators, incorporating ongoing citizen science data from students and community members will expand the database of birds from this region on Cornell’s eBird.com. If the Peruvian board of education replicates the training and materials in other areas of Peru, the impact would multiply tremendously, further fueling the country’s strong efforts to be a prime tourist destination. If more bird festivals occur, celebrating birds could become a proud new tradition.

Nonetheless, what has happened over the past three years has given unforgettable, enjoyable memories to thousands of children in Peru, empowering them with activities that contribute to the wellness of the Amazon rainforest and the planet overall.

Brian Landever is Director of Conapac, devoted to conservation and community development, in Iquitos, Peru.

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Winners of the Birds of South America Photo Contest

From this July to the end of September, birdseye.photo was flooded with hundreds of beautiful photos of birds endemic to South America for our summer photo contest. We got dozens of parrots, tanagers, gulls, owls, ducks, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, hawks, herons, and so many more! It was extremely difficult to pick just three winners, but here we are.

The BirdsEye team collected our ten favorite photos, then consulted professional photographers to choose the final three.

Here, along with a short story about each photo, are the winners.

FIRST PLACE
Debbie Reynolds, Sunbittern

Sunbittern (Eurypyga helias). Photo by Debbie Reynolds.

Debbie’s story: “I love “shooting” birds, and just happened to be going to the Pantanal in September, saw your email asking for shots of South American Birds, and thought I would send you a few of my favorites. 

 “This photo was taken on the Cuiabá River, where we stayed at the end of the Transpantaneira Highway at the Hotel Pantanal Norte.  We were riding in an 8 person boat up and down the river, looking for birds and mammals, and spotted this Sunbittern on a sandbar, just getting ready to take off.  

“The boat was bouncing around, but I managed to lock my camera onto the bird before it took off, and it happened to fly right in front of the boat.  I was using my Canon EOS 5D Mark IV camera, with a 400 MM lens.  F/5.6 and ISO 640.”

SECOND PLACE
Alexandre Gualhanone, Yellow-fronted Woodpecker

Yellow-fronted Woodpecker (Melanerpes flavifrons). Photo by Alexandre Gualhanone.

Alexandre’s story: “This photo was taken on a trip to the Tucanos Trail in the city of Tapiraí, State of San Pablo, Brazil, in the company of great friends, also birdwatchers. The bird was approaching a feeder for food.

“The Tucanos Trail is one of the hotspot of the State of São Paulo. It has over 300 species of birds recorded on its self-guided trails, feeders and drinkers.”

This photo was taken with a Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon EF 100-400mm f / 4.5-5.6L IS USM lens, exposure time: 1/50, aperture: f / 5.6, ISO: 500, distance: 148.0 mm.

You can find Alexandre and his beautiful photos on Instagram @gualhanonebirdwatching

THIRD PLACE
Bonnie Flamer, Hyacinth Macaw

Hyacinth Macaws (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus). Photo by Bonnie Flamer.

Bonnie’s story: “I was able to witness these gorgeous Hyacinth Macaws at Porto Joffre in the central portion of the Mato Grosso, Pantanal, Brazil. I was with a photo group that was there for birding and Jaguars. We took a tour around the property for birds before we were to go out in boats to see the wildlife on the rivers and channels in the area.

“As we were coming to the end of our tour we saw this pair of Macaws playing at the top of a palm tree. They played for a very long time and I and my group were able to take many photos. We were also lucky to get the Ipy trees in the background as they only bloom their pink blossoms for 5 days out of the year and the contrast of the blue macaws and the pink in the background made the photos.

“I used a Nikon 7100 with an 80-400mm lens, at 1/800 and f6.3.”

Congrats to our winners, and thank you to everyone who participated! – The BirdsEye Team

Note: Special winners, who were among the first 25 to submit quality photos of species on our “need these birds” list, will be announced soon!

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Luke Tiller has his eye on raptors

October Birder of the Month
By Amanda Grennell

Hawk expert Luke Tiller.

For Luke Tiller, lifelong outdoor enthusiast, self-taught hawk expert and tour guide, and environmental consultant, watching birds is all about their behavior.

“I like leading tours where it’s not just chasing some rare bird, but there’s some kind of spectacle,” said Luke. “I want to see something amazing that kind of knocks your socks off.”

Like many birders, Luke took a circuitous path to birding. After growing up in London and earning a degree in Philosophy, Luke found his way through various nonprofits to a management and marketing job with Connecticut Audubon. That’s how Luke discovered his love for raptors – which he describes as an “acceptable gateway” to birding.

“They’re big, they’re voracious. If you have a bald eagle flying over your head it seems to have more of an immediate impact on people,” said Luke.

Changeable Hawk-Eagle (Nisaetus cirrhatus). Photo: Luke Tiller.

When he got sick of working in offices, Luke found a way to make a living outdoors by running hawk watches on the East Coast and the Great Lakes, running the “Soaring Bird Surveys” in Israel, and guiding tours on major raptor migration routes. According to Luke there’s no magic or secret to becoming an expert in raptors – it’s comes just from watching them for a long time. After more than 15 years of focusing on raptors, Luke has definitely earned his expertise.

Unlike songbirds, raptors migrate during the day – so you can actually watch migration happening in real time. In the Americas, birds like the Swainson’s Hawk, the Broad-winged Hawk, and the Turkey Vulture migrate from the Northern continent to Central and South America in the fall (August to October), and back again in the spring (March to May). A similar migration pattern happens from Europe and Asia to Africa, for other raptor species.

Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni). Photo: Luke Tiller.

Because raptors don’t usually migrate over the ocean, the land’s geography forces them to funnel through chokepoints – leading to a phenomenal number of birds in the sky.

“I’ve been in Panama when we’ve had had one million birds migrate in one day,” said Luke. “The sky gets blackened with birds.”

And what exactly keeps these powerful birds away from the water? The absence of thermals to keep them aloft. Instead of wasting energy on flapping, most raptors spend their time simply gliding from one thermal to the next. Flying distances of up to 7,000 miles, which the Swainson’s Hawk accomplishes every year, they need to be as efficient as possible. But above the massive heat sink that is the ocean, thermals don’t usually form.

Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis). Photo: Luke Tiller.

In fact, Luke points out, seabirds can be quite dangerous for a raptor that ventures too far from shore. To cross between North Africa and Spain, raptors will get as high as they can above land and then coast over the Straight of Gibraltar. But sometimes they don’t make it.

“They are a fish out of water on the ocean. Gulls will force them out of the air and down to the water and drown them and eat them. And gulls don’t have talons like raptors, so they just rip them apart. It’s kind of gross.”

Some raptors, like Peregrine Falcons and Ospreys, are more adapted to life on the water, and consequently are built for lots of flapping, rather than gliding.

Apart from these natural chokepoints, raptors congregate in other places as well. The Amur Falcon, Luke says, migrate from Siberia and Korea to South Africa along the Doyang river. Before making the 3,000 mile journey over the Arabian Sea, they stop at a hydroelectric dam in Nagaland, a northeastern state in India, hundreds of thousands of birds at a time. Luke was lucky enough to guide the first commercial tour to see this gathering.

Adult female (bottom left) and male (top right) Amur Falcons (Falco amurensis). Photo: Richard Lowe.

The tour was motivated by a remarkable story: with fishing stock decimated by the dam, the local people turned to the Amur Falcons as a food source, repurposing fishing nets to catch the birds. During the huge migration event, they were caught by the thousands, and within a couple years the decline in population was noticed at their wintering grounds. But when Bano Haralu, a local journalist and conservationist, uncovered the source of the population decline, multiple organizations stepped in to protect the birds. They explained the problem to the villagers subsisting on the falcons, who then decided to stop hunting the birds and invest in tourism instead.

As a keystone species, the Amur Falcons’ story is not just about the birds, it’s about the ecosystems that depend on them. With the help of the government, forest service, NGOs and local communities, zero Amur Falcons are captured or killed in northeast India now – a resounding success for the environment.

Luke is fond of many environmental success stories with raptors, citing it as another reason to enjoy hawk watching. Bald Eagles, for example, were down to 500 breeding pairs in the 1960s. But after reducing the use of DDT, their numbers have soared past ten thousand pairs. Reduction of pesticides, along with a captive-bred release program also allowed Peregrine Falcons to recover.

“When you are talking about the environment many stories are depressing. I think it is important to share stories of success, especially when the problems are usually manmade,” said Luke.

Though he’s reluctant to pick a favorite – “Favorite birds are whatever you can think of when you get asked that question, and they change often,” – Luke said his current favorite is the Harpy Eagle.

Immature Harpy Eagle Harpia harpyja). Photo: Peter Boesman.

The national bird of Panama, the Harpy Eagle is endemic to South and Central America, living in pristine forest habitat. Because of this, they can be somewhat hard to find. Luke puts a sighting between uncommon and rare. But, if you know the location of a Harpy nest, chances are good, as their chicks stay around for up to a year. Luke had the great fortune to travel to a Harpy nest in Panama a couple years ago.

“We had an hour drive, a two hour boat ride, about an hour and a half hike through the jungle where it was 90 degrees and 100 percent humidity. But it was all worth it when we finally got to the nest. Here was this baby Harpy and the mother sitting together. It was pretty amazing,” said Luke. “That’s why I like hawk watching and migration. You go to interesting places and you see this incredible spectacle.”

Luke Tiller with a tour group in Panama.

If you’d like to learn more about hawk migration in the U.S. check out the Hawk Migration Association of North America. You can also find hawk watch site near you on Hawk Count, which maintains a database of bird counts at over 300 sites across North America.

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August Birder of the Month: Rene Valdes

Birding and Conservation in Mexico with Rene Valdes
By Amanda Grennell

Rene Valdes: field ornithologist, conservation consultant, photographer, and birder extraordinaire. Photo: Antonio Hidalgo

One thousand. That’s how many birds in Mexico Rene Valdes aims to identify before he turns forty. He’s got two more years and only 31 species to go — and after learning that Rene basically lives and breathes birding, we won’t be surprised when he hits his goal.

How did Rene get into birding? In high school he volunteered to develop nature trails in an estuary preserve in Mazatlán. The lead on the project, a birder from the Netherlands, lent Rene his binoculars and challenged him to find “Woody Woodpecker” out on the estuary. That first bird, actually a
Pale-billed Woodpecker, got Rene hooked — soon he was identifying all the birds in his hometown, and a little later began photographing birds. Little did he know that there are about 1,100 bird species native to Mexico.

Pale-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus guatemalensis). Photo: Rene Valdes

In college, Rene chose to study biology, but specialized in ornithology by joining in research projects, sometimes at other universities, to study birds and conservation. At one point he put his formal studies on pause to spend four months in Peru, studying parrots in the Amazon. That experience led him to research parrot conservation in Northeast Mexico for ten years after graduating college.

Maroon-fronted Parrot (Rhynchopsitta terrisi). Photo: Rene Valdes

During this time, Rene focused on the Maroon-fronted Parrot, an endemic species to Mexico that is endangered. While living and studying in Northeast Mexico, Rene started guiding in his free time. He just couldn’t get enough of birds. He started leading tours in Mazatlán and the Pacific Coast, but branched out to new spots he learned about from his personal birding trips — Chiapas, the Yucatan Peninsula, and Monterrey, where Rene now lives. “Chiapas is one of my favorite places,” Rene said.

One of Rene’s many guided tours. Photo: Rene Valdes

In 2011 Rene stopped doing academic research, switching to consulting with private companies. But he’s always watching birds, and studying their behavior for fun. “Last year I was studying a nesting colony of terns and gulls,” Rene said. Now he works with wind farm companies to do bird surveys on the Yucatan Peninsula to better understand how building windmills will affect bird populations. His studies aim to minimize the effects of wind farms on birds.

For the past six years, Rene has also guided tours for the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, which focuses on birds living along the border. It’s a huge affair with almost 100 guides — well worth checking out if you want to add more than 30 new birds to your life list. (This year’s festival is Nov 6-10, so there’s still time to plan a trip!)

Another guided tour with Rene. Photo: Rene Valdes

Disclaimer: Rene also works for BirdsEye, developing content, uploading new content, approving photos on birdseye.photo, and coordinating citizen science projects. He’s worked on creating Birds of Ecuador, Birds of Peru, and Birds of New Guinea — some of our apps that streamline guidebooks into excellent smartphone apps. And he reviews eBird sightings for three states in Mexico.

Like many birders, Rene is also a photographer. I might be biased, but Rene’s photos are stunning. But he’s never had lessons or taken any classes. So how did he hone his skills? “It was just practice.” Rene said. “I made a lot of mistakes. I started with a film camera, so I learned from my mistakes and tried to fix them.” Rene did get help from a friend to jumpstart his editing skills in photoshop, but after that he says he learned by himself, again, through lots of practice.

You can view many of Rene’s best photos on his birdseye.photo page.

Rene’s favorite bird may not be what you expect. In a country filled with vibrant birds in a rainbow of colors, Rene’s pick is a simple black and white: the Tufted Jay. “Very endangered species, but it is beautiful. There are no more than 1,000 birds left in the wild. It is gorgeous,” Rene said. Rene’s favorite tours are to the Mexican states of Sinaloa and Durango, where groups of up to twenty Tufted Jays can be seen.

Tufted Jay (Cyanocorax dickeyi). Photo: Rene Valdes

Rene is also partial to the Horned Guan because of the effort required to find its territory. You have to hike 5-6 hours to the top of a cloud forest in Chiapas to reach one of the only places it is known to live.

Horned Guan (Oreophasis derbianus). Photo: Rene Valdes

It’s hard for Rene to pin down exactly why he loves birding. “It’s addictive actually,” Rene said. “I travel a lot in Mexico to find birds that I have never seen before.” His Mexico list sits at 969 bird species identified, though Rene says he’s only snapped photos of about 600-700 different species from Mexico. “Discovering a new bird that is awesome, colorful, just beautiful birds. That helps people get into birding,” Rene added.

“As I say to my friends, when you have very few birds left, it is very expensive to get them. You have to travel a lot for only one bird sometimes. The first 200 or 300 species are for free.” 

Even still, Rene saw five new birds on a recent trip off-shore of Baja. Yep, he’s going to have no problem getting to 1,000. Go Rene!

Rene loves birds, and they love him. Photo: Rene Valdes


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Best Bird Photos From July

Every day, BirdsEye users submit beautiful bird photos from around the world. The images are verified and incorporated into our apps to help our users better identify species as they birdwatch. The following images are a collection of our staff’s favorite pics submitted to our BirdsEye.photo site in July 2019.

Have a favorite image in our apps that you’d like to see featured? Email us at info@birdsinthehand.com.

Photography Contest: Birds of South America

Announcing the Summer 2019 BirdsEye Photo Contest!

Thanks to users like you, BirdsEye Nature Apps has amassed one of the most complete and high-quality photo collections of birds, odes, and butterflies in the world! Our company is dedicated to acquiring a comprehensive photo library for our nature apps, and we rely on our users for many of these brilliant images.

To celebrate the summer, we are delighted to announce our second BirdsEye Photography Contest. This time, our contest will feature the beautiful birds of South America. The contest is designed to bolster our South American bird collection and highlight accomplished birders and photographers.

So if you’ve been birding in South America, or are planning a trip this summer, consider snapping a few shots to share with the BirdsEye community.

Enter today—for free—for a chance to win the following prizes.

First Prize: $100 Amazon giftcard

Second Prize: $50 Amazon giftcard

Third Prize: One free download of the Birds of Peru app

Additional Prizes: A one-year membership to BirdsEye Worldwide will also be awarded to the first 25 contestants who submit high-quality photos of any species on this list. These photos may be featured on our recently launched Birds of Ecuador app!

Photo Guidelines:

We are looking for photos of birds native to South America depicted accurately in their environment. These photos will feature in our apps and marketing campaigns to help users identify birds when they are in the field. We always give proper credit to the photographer.

Judges are looking for clean, unobstructed photos of birds in a natural environment. Extra consideration will be given to pictures of rarer birds or photos depicting unique bird behaviors.

Contest Rules:

Photos for this contest should be submitted to birdseye.photo/submit anytime between July 23, 2019 and September 30, 2019.

If you don’t already have a BirdsEye photo account, create one at birdseye.photo/create_account/.

All photo contest submissions must include the hashtag #photocontest2019 in the caption section of the submission page. This hashtag is the only way we will identify contest submissions.

Following #photocontest2019 in the caption, please include a short description of the bird. To verify photos were taken in South America, all submissions require location information.

Photos should be submitted as .JPGs and should be under 5 MB in size. We prefer to receive photos that are 576 x 720 pixels or larger.

Potential winners may be asked to provide higher resolution photos, and/or .RAW files to help in judging.

All submitters must agree to the BirdsEye Terms of Service.

Eligible Regions:

SOUTH AMERICA
Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Galápagos Islands, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay, Venezuela



If you don’t have an BirdsEye photo account, create one now!


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Who Shot it Best?

We are happy to announce the winners of our most recent Who Shot it Best photo contest.

Congratulations to Tasha DiMarzio whose photograph of a Red Knot garnered the most votes from over 1,300 entries!

And congratulations to Wendell Gilgert, the new owner of a free pair of Zeiss binoculars! Wendell was selected at random from over 1,300 entrants who voted in the photo contest, winning a pair of TERRA ED 8×32 Zeiss binoculars.

Wendell Gilgert enjoys his new Zeiss binoculars, compliments of the BirdsEye Red Knot photo contest.

Check out our current photo contest, featuring the birds of South America, ongoing until September 31, 2019!

BirdsEye would like to thank Zeiss for sponsoring our contest.

Zeiss Sports Optics
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Taylor Páez is a Dirtbag Birder

643 bird species, 44 states, two trips across the country and back, one 2002 four-cylinder Ford Ranger  – all Taylor Páez needed to complete her Big Year on the road.

By Amanda Grennell

In 2017, Taylor Paez road-tripped her way across the United States, at times zig-zagging from one rare bird sighting to another. Her goal: complete a Big Year with 700 birds species identified. Photo credit: James Adam Taylor.

After seven months on the road, living out of her truck and tracking down as many bird species as possible in the lower 48 states, Taylor Páez was tired. It was November, and she’d already identified several hundred birds at wildlife refuges, parks, and landfills across the country. Almost all of them were new to her, outside the range of her native California. And now there were just a few rare birds left on Taylor’s list.

Based on a tip from fellow birders she’d met at the dump, Taylor drove to the National Butterfly Refuge in search of one of those rare sightings – the Audubon’s Oriole. She had already visited this popular birding spot earlier in the year, a beautiful swath of the Rio Grande valley nestled at the border of southern Texas and Mexico.

Amidst the butterflies, and the butterfly watchers, Taylor scoured the early morning landscape for her bird, but came up empty.

“By that point I had learned what Altamira Orioles sound like, so I could hear them chattering down the trail a little bit,” Taylor recalled. “I thought, maybe I’m not going to get the Audubon’s, and I guess that’s okay. I did try my best.”

About to leave as the afternoon heat took over, Taylor’s ears pricked up.

 “I heard this really beautiful, kind of sad Oriole call in the distance: a-choo-choo-choo,” Taylor said, “I had never heard an Audubon’s Oriole before in my entire life, but I knew this had to be it!”

Tip-toeing around a corner as quickly as she could, Taylor found the Audobon’s Oriole, a beautiful black and yellow bird, stealing from a basket of rotting fruit that’s technically there for the butterflies.

“I was so delighted. I didn’t expect to see it there, I didn’t know what it was going to sound like, but I was somehow right. It was a reaffirming moment for me,” Taylor said.

That affirmation gave Taylor the motivation to get through the last couple months, ending 2017 with a total of 643 bird species identified. She ended up ranking 8th on eBird, the site where most Big Year “competitors” track their sightings.

Taylor’s sighting of the Audubon’s Oriole at the National Butterfly Center. Taylor kept friends and family updated on her Big Year adventures via Instagram, @needsmorebirds.
Photo credit: Taylor Páez.

Taking on a Big Year

A Big Year is not a formal competition – there are no prizes, no trophies, no money, little fame. Instead, it is a challenge that birders take on to see as many bird species as possible in a certain area during a calendar year.  In February 2017, Taylor hit the road without much thought of the competition – just her own goal of finding 700 species in the lower 48 United States by New Year’s Eve. She was 26.

Before her Big Year, Taylor had what every Millennial craves– a decent job with benefits, a future where she could stay in one place, supportive friends and family, a good, comfortable life. But she also felt discontent brewing.

Taylor worked at a credit union, and between a frustrating work environment and the great big windows in her office, Taylor longed to be outdoors. In a moment of frustration one day, Taylor jokingly dreamed about quitting her job to live out of her truck and watch birds. But her joke stuck.

“I just couldn’t get it out of my head from that moment on. I was like ‘What’s stopping me?'” Taylor recalls.

Taylor started talking about her idea with friends, who she credits with giving her the confidence that she could actually do it. There wasn’t anything to stop her but herself – except the fear of telling her parents. But with the promise of daily phone calls, they were on board with Taylor’s dream.

So Taylor saved money and planned how to live out of her truck – something easy to find online these days due to a surging movement to build out vehicles, like vans and trucks, into livable spaces. Taylor bought a shell, or canopy, so she could sleep in the bed of her truck and store lots of gear. She started looking at blogs about living out of her truck, and was inspired by the lifestyle of “dirtbag” rock climbers, who pioneered the idea of taking time off to do something you love, while also living a low-cost life on the road.

“I met a couple of climbers who were dirtbags,” Taylor said, “And I thought I could do that, but I really like watching birds. So why don’t I just be a dirtbag birder?”

The benefits of dirtbag birding: excellent vantage point. Featuring Taylor’s Ford Ranger, the truck she lived out of for 10 months. Photo credit: Taylor Páez.

Dirtbag life

In January 2017, Taylor committed to becoming a dirtbag birder: she put in one month’s notice at work and began final preparations to live on the road in search of birds she’d never seen before, in places she’d never been.

One issue we can’t get around is, of course, safety. Though Taylor met many other young women travelling alone, she fielded lots of questions from concerned strangers about the dangers of a woman doing something completely by herself. But Taylor said her top safety issues were the weather and the prospect of meeting a mountain lion — only rarely did other people make her feel unsafe.

“You should be prepared. You should always be mindful. But we don’t have to live every day in a state of panic that someone is going to attack us,” Taylor said.

Just like anyone else adventuring outdoors alone, Taylor made sure someone else knew her plans. She told her parents where she would be, and for how long, usually checking-in with them every morning and again in the evening. Her mom looked up her location using the “Find my Friends” app, which sometimes lead to confusion when Taylor spent a few days at sea.

Taylor’s route was a road trip of epic proportions. Starting in Northern California, Taylor looped down South through Arizona, Southern Texas, around the Gulf of Mexico, then sped North to New Hampshire and Maine. She then hit New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Michigan and the upper peninsula, and Wisconsin. Next up was back to the West: Colorado, the Great Plains, Washington, and back to home base in California.

Getting a taste of home made it tough for Taylor to get back on the road. It was July, about five months into Taylor’s experiment with dirtbag birding. But after a month-long break Taylor pressed on, into the “zig-zag” phase of her Big Year – Southern California, Montana, Arizona, a boating trip off the coast of Maine, New Jersey, Ohio, Minnesota, Nebraska, Mississippi, Texas, and finally back to California to finish the year.

“Toward the end of the year it gets pretty crazy because it’s less about the common birds and more about the rare ones,” Taylor said, explaining her zig-zag pattern.

A beloved birding spot threatened with destruction

After her sweeping survey of the country, Taylor has a tough time picking just one favorite locale — the country is filled with amazing biodiversity, and she loves it all. But if she has to answer, Taylor picks the subtropical region of Southern Texas.

In one day at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge she identified 35 new birds — the most she ever checked off at once. But plans for a border wall, intended to curb illegal immigration, could destroy the habitat that allows wildlife to flourish.

While funding for construction through Santa Ana, the National Butterfly Center, and Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park has not been passed, conservation leaders are still concerned.

“All bets are off,” says Marianna Treviño-Wright, the Butterfly center’s executive director told Audubon Magazine. “The heavy equipment is literally next door.”

Taylor recalls fondly several birds she saw for the first time in South Texas: Roseate Spoonbills, Green Jays, Kiskadees, and of course, the Audubon’s Oriole.

“It’s such a treasure that I think a lot of Americans don’t know about or don’t understand. It would be just a devastating loss to bulldoze it,” Taylor said.

Taylor’s favorite birds

To bag as many birds as possible, Taylor relied upon sighting reported on eBird, Audubon Society listserves, and local birding groups on Facebook. Sometimes she’d even learn of rare bird sightings on Instagram, or word-of-mouth at popular birding spots.

Here are a few of Taylor’s favorite sightings.

Audubon’s Oriole, National Butterfly Center, Texas
“I probably cried at the Butterfly Center.”

Audubon’s Oriole. Photo credit: David Hollie.

Green Jay, Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, Texas
“I remember looking at bird books at thinking I’m never going to see this bird. It’s just so beautiful and vibrant, I can’t believe this thing exists,” Taylor said. “But, like Crows and Ravens and Blue Jays are on the East Coast, they are just everywhere and they are obnoxious.”

Green Jay. Photo credit: Dan Tallman.

Roseate Spoonbill, Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Roseate Spoonbill. Photo credit: JC Knoll.

Common Greenshank, Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, New Jersey
Taylor spent four days on the same 13-mile, one-way loop to spot this rare bird. An update on a birding message board before Taylor entered the refuge on her last morning pinpointed the bird at mile marker 4. “If you see a bunch of birders and they’re all looking in the same direction, that’s a really good sign.”

Common Greenshank. Photo credit: Richard Lowe.

Lessons from a Big Year or birding

After spending a year in the outdoors and nearly reaching her 700-bird goal, Taylor did not go back to a stable office job. Instead, she turned to opportunities in the natural world: working as a park naturalist and then on hummingbird surveys.

“I realized I not only wanted to be outside, but I wanted to make a positive impact on people. I want to bring accessibility to nature and the outdoors. We need it now more than ever,” Taylor said. “I never thought I would do what I did. Before that I played everything safe. I didn’t take risks, ever.”

Taylor’s next adventure is a 220 mile, 20-day through-hike on the John Muir Trail, which she’s planning with her best friend for this August. Such a long backpacking trip is a new challenge for Taylor, but after her Big Year, Taylor knows the risks are worth the payoff.

The view from Taylor’s truck-bed and home for ten months. Slab City, California.
Photo credit: Taylor Páez.

Northern Spotted Owl Population Continues to Decline

A northern spotted owl peers down from an old-growth forest in the Pacific Northwest. Photo courtesy of Charles Yackulic/U.S. Forest Service – Pacific Northwest Research Station.

The Northern Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) was first listed as a federally threatened species in the late 20th century. The species found itself on the Endangered Species List after decades of overlogging and forest mismanagement in the Pacific Northwest severely degraded and restricted its available habitat. In 1994, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management adopted the Northwest Forest Plan, a controversial management plan that was intended to protect spotted owl habitat by preserving old growth forests.

Yet 25 years after the implementation of the Northwest Forest Plan, northern spotted owl populations continue to decline, according to a new study in the journal Ecological Applications. In fact, the species’ population is decreasing faster than expected.

According to the study, the reason for the continued decline is not logging or recreation, but rather competition with barred owls (Strix varia), a forest competitor that began to invade the northern spotted owl’s range 50 years ago.

A barred owl photographed in Portland, Oregon. Photo courtesy of Skip Russell via BirdsEye.photo.

“We have known for some time that northern spotted owls are reliant on older forest as habitat, that recovering northern spotted owls would require recovering this habitat, and that this process of recovery would take many decades,” says lead author Charles Yackulic of the U.S. Geological Survey. “Twenty-five years ago, however, we did not anticipate the increases in barred owl abundances would lead to a second major threat to northern spotted owl recovery.”

Barred owls challenge northern spotted owls for prime nesting spots and hunting areas in old growth forests. However, because barred owls are considered invasive species, they do not play the same role in the ecosystem and are causing ripples throughout the food web.

In response to these findings, the authors of the study recommend removing barred owls from the forest, which they identify as a viable forest management strategy. Combined with continued habitat protection and restoration, the authors hope the northern spotted owl population trend will turn around soon. Without any action to remove barred owls, the northern spotted owl could go extinct within decades.

Journal Citation: Yackulic, Charles, et al. 2019. “The past and future roles of competition and habitat in the rangewide occupancy dynamics of Northern Spotted Owls.” Ecological Applications. DOI: 10.1002/eap.1861.

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Who Shot it Best?

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