Saturday, May 16, 2009

Birds for Endangered Species Day

Egrets: once hunted nearly to extinction, now thriving

Yesterday, May 15, was Endangered Species Day, an occasion to celebrate conservation successes and learn more about local species that remain vulnerable. A good starting point to learn which species are endangered is the federal Endangered Species List. States also maintain their own listings; here is New Jersey's. The most comprehensive list of the world's known endangered species is the IUCN Red List.

A few days spent birding in the Cape May area gave plenty of opportunity to observe current and former endangered species. Since this is a birding blog, I will stick to the birds. Bald Eagles are perhaps the best known species to join and then leave the federal endangered species list, and they are still on New Jersey's list as a breeding species. Three Bald Eagles (the Pond Creek residents) wheeled in the air above Hidden Valley on Wednesday. From the current endangered list, there were Piping Plovers and Least Terns setting up breeding territories around the dunes of Cape May Point State Park and the South Cape May Meadows. (The latter appears on the federal but not state list.) Piping Plovers receive special treatment at the Meadows, where cages are erected around their nests. The cages allow the tiny plovers to pass through, but not predators like feral cats or raccoons.

Black Skimmers, though not on the federal list, appear on New Jersey's endangered list as a breeding species, due to the paucity of suitable nesting habitat. A large flock of skimmers was present at Heislerville WMA on Thursday, and a smaller number were present at Brigantine on Friday. Another bird that appears on the state but not federal list (even though it should) is the Red Knot. Flocks of these shorebirds were present at Reed's Beach and Kimble's Beach as they braved heavy winds to fatten themselves on horseshoe crab eggs. Red Knots have declined sharply due not to a lack of breeding habitat but because of overharvesting of horseshoe crabs, their primary food source during spring migration. I hate to think of these beautiful sandpipers disappearing.

At Brigantine on Friday, the refuge was full of various herons (such as the Great Egrets pictured above), which were hunted nearly to extinction a century ago for their beautiful feathers. A more recent success story, the Peregrine Falcon, is also present as a breeder in the refuge. New Jersey still counts this falcon as an endangered species, even though it recovered sufficiently to be delisted on the federal level. One pair occupies a tower in the center of the refuge impoundments. Northern Harrier also appears on the state list as a breeder; at least two were present on Friday. Black-crowned Night Herons and Osprey are listed as threatened breeders in New Jersey. One of the former and several of the latter were present at Brigantine. Osprey in particular have made productive use of man-made nesting platforms distributed throughout the refuge.

All of these species, and all of the vulnerable ones yet to be listed, deserve our respect and support.

The stop at Brigantine was exciting for more than the endangered species. For starters, I saw my life Whimbrel. While Whimbrel numbers seemed down from the reports of last weekend, at least this one remained. Also there were six White-rumped Sandpipers on the north side of the refuge, and eleven warbler species on a woodland trail. It was a great time to go, except for the flies.