Notes from the Field: Saving Seabirds in the Falkland Islands

On a recent conservation expedition to the Falkland Islands – the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS’s) second in two years – I met with the governor of the islands and commissioner of the nearby South Georgia and South Sandwich islands, His Excellency Nigel Phillips CBE. We discussed the need and potential for penguin conservation work in the region, and the important role that the DZS can provide. Through our partnership with organizations such as Falklands Conservation (FC), which is working to conserve rockhopper, gentoo and king penguins – three species of penguins living in the Detroit Zoo’s Polk Penguin Conservation Center – and other seabirds, we can not only provide financial support but also scientific expertise in the field. Additionally, we teach, engage and inspire millions of Detroit Zoo visitors about these incredible animals, their plight in the wild, and what people can do to help.

The Falkland Islands, located off the southern tip of South America, provide critical habitats for several species of penguins and other wildlife. However, threats are looming from oil extraction and increasing ecotourism, and it is essential to establish marine protected areas and assess the impacts ecotourism brings. On our recent expedition with Falklands Conservation, we set out to monitor the population of penguins and other seabirds living on several islands off the easternmost coast of the Falklands – some which had never been visited and others that had not been visited for more than 10 years. The islands were close to the military port near Stanley, the capital of the Falklands, but rather remote, and landing on some of them was quite difficult because of the sea swells and cliff faces. In fact, we weren’t able to land at all on one of the islands called The Mot, and instead used a drone to effectively document the birds’ habitat.

We made some important observations on these excursions. As the sun went down during our drone visit to The Mot, we noted the return of hundreds of sooty shearwater birds returning to their burrows. Shearwaters are a threatened pelagic sea bird and an important indicator of well-managed fisheries, so documenting the location of a new colony was significant. We also documented the first records of Cobb’s wren on another island, which are ground nesting birds endemic to the Falkland Islands and important indicators that the land is free of rats and mice. These rodents have been introduced to many of the islands and have devastated populations of Cobb’s wren and other ground nesting birds. Additionally, we were heartened to see that the habitat at another island, Motley, has recovered tremendously from earlier sheep grazing. The plant life on this island was diverse with rare flowers such as yellow orchids and hairy daisies. Gentoo penguins were also observed at Motley, so it is possible and promising that a previously observed gentoo colony nearby is expanding.

The DZS hopes to establish a long-term project site at the Falklands to analyze the impact of ecotourism on penguin breeding, health and welfare. Tom Schneider, the DZS’s curator of birds, and I investigated several potential sites that have king and/or gentoo penguin colonies. We also had the opportunity to visit the Seabird Rehabilitation Facility, which was designed to accommodate small-scale wildlife rescue efforts, often involving oiled penguins. With increased oil development on the horizon, the number of oiled birds needing proper cleaning and rehabilitation is sure to increase. The DZS has produced educational panels that will be displayed at the facility which detail its history, the impact of oil pollution on seabirds, the extensive process that goes into caring for oiled birds, and several success stories of birds who have recovered and been returned to the wild.

– Paul Buzzard, Ph.D., is the field conservation officer for the Detroit Zoological Society, which leads and supports wildlife conservation work on six continents.

Notes from the Field: Project Launched to Monitor Wild Bats at Detroit Zoo

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is going to bat for a misunderstood species.

Contrary to what pop culture would have you believe, bats are critically important to the environment. They are considered to be essential pollinators in some parts of the world. They also help control populations of insects including mosquitos – which can spread diseases to humans and other animals – and moths, which can significantly damage crops.

In fact, bats are said to save U.S. farmers more than $3 billion a year in agricultural production, according to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), which kicked off Bat Conservation Week (October 24-31) by announcing $1.36 million in grants to find a cure for a disease that is threatening several species of bats. Known as white-nose syndrome, this disease has wiped out more than 6 million bats in North America in the past decade.

The Detroit Zoological Society supports Bat Conservation International (BCI), one of the beneficiaries of the NFWF grant, which is not only working to conserve endangered species of bats, but also to preserve bat “hot spots” around the world and launch a global bat database for the more than 1,300 species of bats existing on the planet.

The DZS is committed to the conservation of bats, and supporting BCI is one part of a comprehensive plan. Staff is engaged in a bat monitoring project to determine which of the nine species of bats native to Michigan are using the Detroit Zoo as a wild habitat. An acoustic monitor senses the ultrasonic bat calls and creates a graph showing the frequency and characteristics of the calls. This system also changes the frequency so the calls can be heard by human ears. In addition to documenting which species are present, staff will also be able to determine what behaviors the bats are engaged in while making the calls, such as feeding or socializing. This project will also explore which species migrate from the Zoo during the winter.

Plans are also beginning to turn the former Penguinarium at the Detroit Zoo into a bat conservation center.

Notes from the Field: Tiny Shorebirds Get New Chance at Survival

The piping plover (Charadrius melodus) is a small shore bird that breeds in three distinct geographic locations; the beaches along the Atlantic coast, the shorelines of the Great Lakes, and along major rivers of the northern Great Plains. The Great Lakes population is classified as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the other two populations are classified as threatened.

At one point, this population of Great Lakes piping plovers was estimated to range from 12 to 32 breeding pairs. After extensive observation, scientists found that plover nests were abandoned and concluded that salvaging these abandoned eggs could contribute to the species’ recovery. For almost two decades, the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) has led the effort to collect these abandoned eggs, incubate them and rear the chicks that hatch until they can be released to join wild plovers.

The DZS operates the captive rearing facility at the University of Michigan Biological Station in Pellston, Mich., and oversees aviculturists from the Detroit Zoo and other Association of Zoos & Aquariums institutions who staff the facility from May through August. The dedicated zookeepers monitor the eggs during incubation and care for the chicks after they hatch. Once they are able to fly, after about four weeks, the birds – that would have otherwise perished – are banded and released into the wild. As they migrate to their wintering grounds, the plovers are identified by birders and photographers who report their findings to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

I spent five weeks this summer at the captive rearing center, working with what I believe are some of the cutest chicks in the world. While our conservation efforts have been incredibly successful over the last 17 years, the Great Lakes piping plover population is still less than 80 breeding pairs annually. This year, seven DZS zookeepers and 12 staff members from eight other zoos helped raise 16 chicks from abandoned eggs to join the more than 90 chicks that wild birds raised.

Adult piping plovers tend to breed around the shores of the Great Lakes on large patches of undisturbed sandy beach filled with cobble. Sometimes, their nests are washed out by waves, a parent is killed by a predator, or an unleashed dog causes abandonment. These nests are closely monitored and when staff has determined that the eggs are not being incubated, they are officially declared abandoned and the eggs are transferred to the captive rearing center. In some cases, such as when a storm is passing through, “dummy” eggs will be placed in the nest while the real eggs are placed in an incubator overnight and then returned the next day.

The captive rearing center has multiple incubators and equipment to nurture each egg and provide the conditions it needs to develop a healthy embryo. After almost four weeks in the egg, a little plover chick will spend two to four days hatching. Newly hatched chicks weigh about as much as three pennies yet are very mobile, looking for food within a few hours of hatching. When a full clutch of four chicks hatches, it looks like four cotton balls on eight toothpicks running around.

Rearing plover chicks properly and assuring they will be ready for release is no easy task. We weigh the chicks every morning and observe them to make sure each bird is thriving. Bonnie Van Dam, the DZS’s associate curator of birds and manager of the captive rearing operations, fields any questions from staff. One chick in particular needed a little more help from staff this year as it had difficulty hatching, curved toes, bowed legs and some feather abnormalities (genetic issues that can’t be avoided), but zookeepers did not give up on this little chick, providing antibiotics, extra feeds and extra practice flying. In the end, although a little different, this bird had incredible character running around and flying well.

We routinely feed the birds a variety of insects every few hours while they also learn to forage on wild insects. They grow fast and their flight feathers start coming in within two weeks. At 17 or 18 days old, the piping plovers are starting to stretch their wings and by 25-27 days they should be flying well. We have one flight pen along the beach where the plovers grow, forage and learn natural behaviors; another is attached to our building to give them outdoor access overnight and more space to practice flying.

Plover fledglings are usually released between 28 and 33 days old. This year we reared 16 chicks that were released into the wild. Most releases occur in an area where there are similarly aged wild chicks; often the releases happen at Sleeping Bear Dunes. It is an incredible feeling opening the door to the crate and letting these small chicks fly free. They immediately start foraging, bathing and or flying around. With a little luck and some decent wind, they will make it to the Atlantic coast or maybe even the Bahamas, enjoy winter, and return to northern Michigan next spring. On August 14, we released the final four birds of the season at Sleeping Bear Dunes, including the special little chick who needed all the extra help. This bird ran down the beach and almost immediately started flying! Each piping plover is a special part of our Great Lakes ecosystem – please be mindful as you share the beaches with these charismatic yet fragile friends.

– Matthew Porter is a bird department zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Notes from the Field: Mitigating Human-Bear Conflicts in Armenia

Armenia is a small country in the south Caucasus Mountains of west Asia between the Black and Caspian seas. Despite its size, Armenia is a hotspot for biodiversity and important for wildlife conservation because of its location at an intersection where wildlife converge from Eurasia, Africa and the Indian sub-continent.

The Detroit Zoological Society is a world-renowned leader in animal welfare, and an important convergence between wildlife conservation and animal welfare is the reduction of human-wildlife conflict. Far too often, humans perceive wildlife as having negative impacts on their productive activities and security – particularly in the case of large predators – which leads to the regular practice of animals being killed. As the largest predator in Armenia, the brown bear (Ursus arctos) suffers heavy persecution from intrusions into farmlands and perceived threats to human life. A recent global survey of the human-bear conflict emphasizes the need for investigations into the effectiveness of various approaches to mitigate the conflicts, such as providing compensation for damage to fields and the use of electric fencing to prevent bear intrusions. This is especially true for Armenia, where there is no current plan to alleviate the human-bear conflict, despite its ubiquity. Fortunately, there is great potential in Armenia for compassionate conservation work that mitigates the human-bear conflict and decreases the intances of humans killing bears in retribution.

I recently convened with our partners with the National Academy of Sciences to document the distribution and intensity of this conflict by conducting interviews and installing trail cameras. In early August, I travelled to the Shikahogh State Reserve in southern Armenia and the Vayats Dzor region in central Armenia. Our team connected with reserve officials, village leaders and landowners, and documented a great deal of evidence of this conflict including damage to orchards, fields and beehives – most interviewees indicated an increase in conflict over the last several years. To verify the presence of bears, we set trail cameras in the Shikahogh Reserve and adjacent villages as well as in the villages of Vayats Dzor.

We also gathered data on other wildlife in the area. For example, at one of the sites in the Vayats Dzor region, we heard reports of Eurasian otters (Lutra lutra); the camera we set in this area will take pictures of both bears and otters. Otters are endangered in Armenia and one of the threats comes from hunters mistaking otters for introduced nutria (Myocastor coypus) and other wildlife. There is potential for us to implement an education program that would educate hunters about the protected status of otters in the hopes that it would prevent them from killing these animals. In addition, several of the cameras at Shikahogh were set in areas that are also promising for endangered Persian leopards (Panthera pardus taxicolor). Shikahogh borders protected areas in Iran where underpasses were recently established to act as wildlife corridors. Evidence of leopards using these underpasses would be very significant.

The trail cameras will be moved and reset this fall and additional cameras will be set in new villages. Next spring, we plan to establish a robust estimate of the number of bears in Vayats Dzor by placing cameras in all or most villages. We will also analyze the time stamps on the photos together with the characteristics of the bears photographed. In the coming years, we will document the bear conflict in the Syunik region between Shikahogh and Vayats Dzor as well as northern Armenia and explore ways to mitigate the conflict, such as offering compensation programs, installing electric fencing and facilitating safe bear ecotourism, so the bear presence can positively impact the economy. The camera data will also be used to find important areas to potentially implement protected status. The National Academy of Sciences in Armenia is striving to set up a network of protected areas that will stretch across Armenia, linking Iran in the south with Georgia in the north.

Paul Buzzard, Ph.D., is the field conservation officer for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Notes from the Field – Wolf/Moose Research Continues on Isle Royale

The Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS’s) ongoing involvement in the important conservation project Wolves & Moose of Isle Royale – the longest continuous study of any predator-prey system in the world – continued with a recent expedition to this remote island.

 

Isle Royale is located in the frigid waters of Lake Superior. At more than 40 miles long, it is the largest island in the largest of the Great Lakes. This national park is also home to a population of wolves and moose – moose first came in the early 1900s and wolves joined in the 1940s after crossing an “ice bridge” from Canada. For more than five decades, researchers have studied the lives of these animals and their fluctuating populations in order to better understand the ecology of predation and in turn, gain a better sense of our relationship with nature.

 

I recently traveled to Isle Royale with David Anthony, a DZS education specialist, to conduct research for this project. We took the ferry from Grand Portage, Minnesota to the Windigo Ranger Station on the southwest end of the island – the opposite side from where we conducted fieldwork in 2016.

 

Because ice bridges form more rarely between Isle Royale and Canada due to the changing climate, the wolf population at this location has dropped to only two closely related individuals. The Wolf-Moose Project currently focuses on how the moose population is responding to reduced wolf predation and how the forest is responding to the increased moose population. While there is a proposal to reintroduce more wolves, it is a complicated issue in part because Isle Royale is also a national park. The National Park Service is expected to decide on this proposal this fall.

 

Once we arrived at Windigo, we donned our heavy backpacks in a light rain for a 5-mile hike to our first camp, which was situated next to a large beaver pond. It was a cold, rainy night and rather unpleasant, but it was a relief that the next day was sunny and we were able to dry out our clothes and equipment.

We hiked 2-3 miles each day, carefully looking for moose bones in the dense forest, traveling up and down ridges and through swamps. On our first full day in the field, we located a nearly complete skeleton with an antlered skull. The skulls and teeth were an especially successful find, because when cut into a cross section, the rings of dentin in the teeth can be counted to age the moose – similar to counting tree rings – which provides important information on the moose population. The bones are also examined for signs of chewing by wolves as well as signs of arthritis – many moose at Isle Royale live longer and are more prone to developing arthritis than moose in areas with more predators.

 With this information, we then try to surmise the cause and time of death to learn more about when wolves were still predating or scavenging moose. Our team also documented the harmful effects moose are having on Isle Royale’s fir trees. Moose rely on the relatively soft fir tree needles for food during the winter, and in many areas, they have continually browsed the tops of fir trees so they stay short and cannot reproduce. With taller, reproducing fir trees becoming scarce on the island, the over-browsing of the short fir trees is a serious concern.

 

After several days, we hiked to our next camp on the shore of a sheltered harbor on Lake Superior. This site was situated next to an active beaver lodge that kept us up at night with tail slapping and the “kerplunk” of beavers diving under water. On our next trek, we found another, even larger antlered skull, and there was more clear evidence of wolf predation – or at least scavenging – with chewed-up leg bones found dragged away to shady trees nearby.

As we wrapped up our journey, we connected with another group of researchers exploring a different part of the island; both teams returned with moose bones and teeth for examination, marking a very successful field expedition.

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– Paul Buzzard, Ph.D., is the field conservation officer for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Help us Protect a Billion Birds from Untimely Deaths

Every year, thousands of avid birders flock to important birding areas in the state of Michigan, hoping to see or hear a few of the millions of birds that are migrating to their breeding grounds. Birds migrate north to their breeding grounds mid-March through May; they then migrate south to their wintering grounds mid-August through October. Unfortunately, many migratory birds will meet an untimely death by colliding with glass or manmade structures, a phenomenon known as a bird collision or bird strike. It has been estimated that up to 1 billion bird-collision deaths occur every year in the U.S., according to the American Bird Conservancy. As humans continue to build structures that contain glass, the threat of bird collisions will also continue.

Birds and humans have a different visual system – we see the world differently. Glass appears invisible to birds and becomes a dangerous barrier they are unable to avoid. Oftentimes as a result, birds will fly directly into windows, causing fatal injuries. In some cases, a bird will fly away after a collision, but it will likely succumb to its injuries elsewhere.

The good news is that there are many things we can do to prevent these collisions from happening. Windows with blinds on them can be made safer to birds by keeping them partially or fully closed. Moving plants away from windows without blinds can prevent birds from thinking they can land on them. Moving bird feeders to within 3 feet of windows or more than 30 feet away from windows can prevent these collisions. There are also a variety of window films that reduce reflection on the outside of windows: ABC BirdTape can be hung vertically – 4 inches apart, or horizontally – 2 inches apart. One of the most common preventative measures people use is decals. Decals come in many shapes and forms but the most common type used is a bird silhouette decal. Companies and homeowners can also build bird-friendly buildings by incorporating reduced visibility of glass, incorporating designs in/on glass and minimizing the use of glass.

 

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The Detroit Zoological Society believes it’s important to take care of all birds, not just those that live at the Detroit Zoo. The DZS has been committed to tracking and preventing bird collisions on Zoo grounds since 2013. All newly hired employees are required to attend orientation and learn how to recognize and report bird collisions to their supervisors. Bird department personnel have used a variety of measures including ABC BirdTape, custom CollidEscape window film and bird decals to prevent collisions. The Polk Penguin Conservation Center has specially designed “fritted” glass, and we recently incorporated custom ORNILUX Bird Protection Glass into the renovated giraffe building – this glass contains a patterned UV coating, making it visible to birds but transparent to the human eye. Detroit Zoo visitors have access to educational flyers and displays about bird collisions at various locations throughout the Zoo and ABC BirdTape is available for purchase at the Zoofari Market.

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We encourage the community to take preventative measures to protect wild birds from colliding with windows in their homes, schools and businesses. Residents and property managers of high-rise buildings, apartments and condominiums can participate in the Detroit Audubon’s Project Safe Passage Great Lakes by turning off all building lights at night on unoccupied floors and spaces. Lights left on in buildings overnight are a major cause of nighttime collisions that kill millions of birds.

– Bonnie Van Dam is the associate curator of birds for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Wildlife Conservation: All Along the Water Tower

Peregrine falcons are a cliff-nesting species whose populations were significantly reduced in the 1950s as a result of environmental contamination by the pesticide DDT. This dangerous chemical accumulated in adult birds and caused thin-shelled eggs, which broke during incubation. The population declined rapidly and by the early 1960s, peregrine falcons were extinct in the eastern U. S.; the last known pair nested in Michigan in 1957. It was one of the first species listed by the Endangered Species Act in 1973.

An effort to reintroduce peregrine falcons into urban environments began in 1982 when chicks were released, or “hacked”, from buildings, bridges and other man-made structures in cities throughout the eastern U.S. Because they strictly hunt birds, peregrines find ample prey in cities with their abundance of pigeons, doves, starlings and other city-dwelling species. This successful reintroduction effort led to peregrines nesting in cities throughout the Midwest and a growing population not only in cities, but in much of their former natural range such as the cliffs along Lake Superior. The now wild peregrine population did so well that they were removed from the federal endangered species list in 1999.

Peregrines currently nest at a number of locations in southeast Michigan including in Warren, Pontiac, Southfield, Grosse Pointe and seven different sites in Detroit. They nest in other Michigan cities as well including Grand Rapids, Lansing and Jackson. Many of the chicks are banded with unique combinations that allow for individual identification when they mature and establish their own nests. Locally, the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS) veterinary staff works with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in the banding effort by performing health assessments as bands are put on pre-fledged chicks.

This past summer, DZS staff and local birders noticed a pair of peregrines perching on the Detroit Zoo’s iconic water tower and hunting pigeons at the Zoo and in Royal Oak. While difficult to see, the male was identified as Justice, a bird hatched in 2012 at the Jackson County Tower Building with a band combination of black/red, 08/P. The female is not banded so we do not know her age or hatch location, but they are a well bonded pair that is still observed around the Zoo.

Often when a pair of peregrines establish a territory such as the water tower with plentiful prey nearby, they will end up nesting at that site. Peregrines lay their eggs on gravel or dirt with minimal nesting material. Because the water tower did not have a proper area for the birds to build a nest, DZS staff worked with the DNR to design and construct a nest box that will meet the needs of the nesting birds. The box was recently installed on the water tower, which was not an easy task. The box is on the southeast side to offer protection from the wind while exposed to ample sunshine. It is visible from the westbound service drive as you wait for the light at Woodward.

We are thrilled that peregrines have chosen the Detroit Zoo as a home along with other native birds, such as the turkey vultures, great blue herons, double-crested cormorants and even the occasional visiting bald eagle. We are optimistic that peregrines will join the species that also nest at the Zoo, which includes wood ducks, green herons and the highly visible breeding colony of black-crowned night herons, a species normally found in secluded wetlands.

– Tom Schneider is the curator of birds for the Detroit Zoological Society.