Watching from the wings – Irish Examiner, August 13 2018

Just a stone’s throw away from the world-acclaimed Wexford Opera House, it’s easy to get a front-row seat at arguably the best and most diverse show in town. This is a show where nature takes to the stage.

On this summer afternoon, now unfamiliar clouds serve as a slow-moving backdrop while swallows dip and dive over the gently lapping water.

Ducks of various varieties bob along before a heron swoops in from the wings, causing an eruption of squabbles and commotion. Unaware of the fuss, a pair of goldfinches dance and whistle around one another before settling on a nearby swaying branch.

The smell of salty sea air wafts in through the open door. Wind whispers through the reeds. As far as shows go, it’s certainly a feast for the senses.

All of this unravels before the Pump House Hide overlooking Wexford Wildfowl Reserve’s main water channel. It is one of the reserve’s three bird hides – a simple shelter used to observe wildlife at close range without disturbance.

Birdwatching from the hides or the reserve’s elevated observation tower gives people the chance to remain sheltered from the elements while still getting to witness nature’s spectacles. In fact, nature often brings itself even closer.

Next to the wooden bench I’m perched upon is a sign requesting that hide windows are left open, to allow for the resident swallows to return to their nests. Sure enough, a mud-bound dwelling is nestled into the wooden ceiling above my head. In the upper floor of the hide, which overlooks Wexford Harbour, there are several more.

Despite the myriad of activities, Education Officer at the reserve John Kinsella tells me that summer is quiet season. A ‘ballpark figure of 260 species’ have been recorded on the 200-hectare reserve, which is managed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and jointly owned with BirdWatch Ireland. Many birds will arrive later this year.

Perhaps the most famous winter residents are the Greenland White-fronted geese, whose expected time of arrival is October.

The reserve welcomes up to 8,000 of the visitors – approximately 45 per cent of the world population – each winter and many birders swoop in to greet them after their long journey.

“The geese have a 15 to 18-hour flight from Greenland to Iceland, their halfway point,” explains John, adding that they stop for four weeks in Iceland before taking the second 18-hour flight to our shores.

“By the time they reach Ireland, they have lost above half a kilo in bodyweight, which is the equivalent of about two stone for us humans.”

This is no issue for Europe’s rarest geese, who replenish their energy stores by feeding up on rye grasses and sugar beet in the following months. The geese remain in Ireland, as well as their other wintering spot in Scotland, before making the journey back to Western Greenland in April.

However, John points out that one individual has decided to stick around a bit longer. From the reserve’s eight-metre high observation tower, a lone goose with a distinctive orange bill can be spied sitting comfortably in a field.

While unsure as to why he remains, John says that the goose is healthy and will likely return to Greenland next year. The influx of Greenland White-fronted geese is an indication that winter is coming, says John. “Cue Game of Thrones music,” he laughs. Until then, there’s still always something to be seen.

From the tower, a group of godwits can be seen prodding in the grass for food with their strikingly-long beaks. Several curlews walk among them, likely migrant birds rather than members of our breeding population, which has declined by 96 per cent since the 1980s.

Little terns, sedge warblers and great-crested grebes are just some of the other birds that can be spotted in summer, while pale-bellied brent geese, Slavonian grebes and great northern divers may be ticked off the list in winter.

The North Slob is also an Irish Hare sanctuary and we spot two on the grass as evening sets in, while at least five species of bat have been recorded here.

In the summertime, the reserve plays host to several events, including the popular weekly pond-dipping and bug discovery activities. This year, a special photography exhibition telling the reserve’s story will be held in the Visitor Centre during Heritage Week in advance of the 50th anniversary in 2019.

While the reserve was officially established in 1969, its history began long before that. The North Slob, where the reserve is located, is a 1,000-hectare mudflat that was reclaimed from the sea for farmland in the 1840’s.

Nowadays, along with being a Nature Reserve, Wexford Wildfowl Reserve forms part of the larger Wexford Slobs and Harbour Special Protected Area (SPA) – a habitat designated under the EU Birds Directive for the protection of endangered species of birds.

The remainder of the North Slob still consists of farmland and the reserve team liaise with local farmers to ensure birds are not disturbed. When the geese arrive, local landowners are subsidised for halting any potentially disruptive agricultural activity on nearby land.

“Goodwill is very high,” says John when asked about cooperation.

Bar the occasional incident with poachers and this year’s heavy snow – more problematic for reserve staff and visitors than birds – John says the reserve has been confronted with few challenges since its foundation. However, they are faced with an issue universal to most environmental efforts: climate change.

Last year, the reserve welcomed less Greenland White-fronted geese than usual. Although ongoing long-term research must be completed to be certain, it’s believed this is a result of climate change.

However, scientists are not yet sure exactly how this affects them or whether the decline will change.

Butterfly walks on the reserve have also yielded less sightings than usual.

Only time will tell what the consequences of our rapidly changing planet will be for birdlife worldwide. In the meantime, staff here will continue to do what they can to protect the many species that call Wexford Wildfowl Reserve home.

(First published in the Irish Examiner on August 13 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/lifestyle/features/watching-from-the-wings-where-nature-takes-centre-stage-861738.html)

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Umbrella Species: Conservation’s Poster Children – The Scientist, August 1 2018

Regardless of how sturdy your umbrella is, someone’s always going to get left out in the rain.

The concept of umbrella species is the central tenet of a conservation strategy that focuses on protecting the habitat of one species in the hope of protecting many others in the same ecosystem. But recent research questions the effectiveness of this strategy. It’s likely that not every species whose range overlaps with that of an umbrella species will benefit—in fact, some may even suffer as a result of the interventions—and conservationists are beginning to call for a revaluation of this conservation approach.

“There’s a misinterpretation of the concept that an umbrella species is going to shelter everything under the umbrella,” says John Wiens, a retired ecologist formerly of Colorado State University who most recently served as chief scientist for a number of conservation nonprofits. “Like all things in ecology, it’s not as simple as it looks.”

study published this May on the use of the greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) as an umbrella species illustrates the problem. After three years of ecological monitoring in an area where the sagebrush had been mowed to improve nesting habitat for the sage-grouse, researchers from the University of Wyoming found that two “background” species, the Brewer’s sparrow (Spizella breweri) and sage thrasher (Oreoscoptes montanus), fared less well than they would have without the habitat alteration. This was likely due to differences between the species in nest site preferences. While ground-nesting sage-grouse are thought to prefer mowed sites due to the increased availability of food for their chicks, Brewer’s sparrow and sage thrasher nest almost exclusively in shrubs, habitat that was largely wiped out by the mowing. The overall abundance of Brewer’s sparrow remained the same, but the overall abundance of sage thrashers decreased by nearly 50 percent.

“This paper focused on the fact that we don’t always just protect, we often manage the habitat, and that can have unanticipated consequences,” says Jason Carlisle, a former University of Wyoming graduate student and lead author of the study. While not surprised at the results, he hopes that they will encourage others to adopt caution when carrying out habitat management.

We must be honest about what assumptions we make, whether they’re justifiable, and whether they can be examined in advance using data.

—Jason Carlisle, University of Wyoming

Just because it can act as a double-edged sword, however, conservationists shouldn’t throw the umbrella species concept out of the conservation toolbox, says University of California, Davis, behavioral ecologist Tim Caro. Rather, he says, researchers and managers should be aware of the approach’s limitations and critically evaluate its effectiveness in meeting intended goals.

“The heart of the problem is there are always going to be trade-offs,” notes Wiens. “You need to do an analysis of who benefits and who loses, and then you can assess whether the trade-offs are worth it.”

Choosing the best representative

Evaluating those trade-offs depends on what background species are considered. For example, the jaguar(Panthera onca) is often cited as an effective umbrella species for many large mammals across Central America, but smaller critters, such as hares, moles, and shrews, aren’t as well shielded by habitat protections designed to conserve jaguar numbers. Similarly, a study assessing the effectiveness of using the coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) as an umbrella species in British Columbia found that while fish species with similar resource and habitat requirements benefitted, most amphibians inhabiting some of the same freshwater ecosystems as the salmon did not. And Carlisle and his colleagues have found that species with similar habitats and traits to those of the sage-grouse, such as sagebrush sparrows (Artemisiospiza nevadensis),  vesper sparrows (Pooecetes gramineus), and pygmy rabbits (Brachylagus idahoensis), were protected better than others.

For an umbrella strategy to benefit as many co-occurring species as possible, researchers must choose a species that best represents the ecosystem and all it encompasses. “It’s clear that picking the right umbrella species is key,” says Carlisle, now a biometrician at the environmental and statistical consulting firm Western EcoSystems Technology, Inc. While researchers are still working out what makes a species a good umbrella, there are a few characteristics that conservationists generally aim for, including a large range and ease of sampling. In addition, umbrella species should be sensitive to human disturbances while being unlikely to become endangered or go extinct.

Barry Noon, an ecologist at Colorado State University, suggests adding one more trait. “The umbrella species should be one that uses a diversity of resources or habitat types for different life history stages.” Other scientists have argued for the use of multiple umbrella species, whose spatial, compositional, and functional requirements are different from one another and, collectively, encompass those of all other species in the ecosystem.

Whatever species are chosen, researchers must continue to evaluate their suitability to represent the ecosystem. Noon and his colleagues have demonstrated, for example, that while the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) was initially an effective umbrella in the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, after a significant drop in its population—first due to logging of old-growth forest required for nesting, then as a result of the barred owl’s (Strix varia) unexpected invasion—it was no longer a suitable representative of the ecosystem.

“Initially the northern spotted owl was a good umbrella,” says Noon, explaining that this was because it uses forest habitats of varying levels of maturity throughout its lifespan. “Now, if we use the [umbrella] criteria and look at its viability, northern spotted owls are in significant decline,” he says. Rare and declining species are less likely to make effective umbrellas, as they occur in so few locations and are less likely to protect others.

Umbrellas rally support

Taking a step back from the umbrella species concept to focus on simply protecting a large area could be a better approach for wildlife conservation than focusing on one or several species, says Noon. In fact, many of the more successful umbrella studies suggest that focusing on a broad area, rather than the umbrella species themselves, as the reason the conservation efforts proved effective, he notes. Indeed, Caro’s analysis of East African reserves that were established 50 years ago using large mammals as umbrellas suggests that background species have been well protected because most reserves were initially large. Similarly, in a study published last August, Carlisle and colleagues found that priority areas for conservation (PACs) set up to protect the greater sage-grouse in the western U.S. were no more effective than randomly selected PACs of the same size at protecting golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos).

But selecting an umbrella species is often helpful for getting political and social support to protect areas, Carlisle says, noting that focusing on the iconic sage-grouse was what garnered support for the protection of the 70 million acres of the Midwestern grasslands in which it resides. This makes it a “flagship-umbrella” species, meaning that it combines the functions of a flagship species—to promote public awareness and raise conservation funds—with the intended role of an umbrella species, to protect co-occurring species and habitats. Caro argues that such flagship-umbrella species could be a boon to conservation efforts. Indeed, a 2016 study demonstrated that the flagship species the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) could also be an effective umbrella species because its range overlaps with many other endemic species in China.

But the criticism of umbrella species strategies is valid, says Carlisle, and it’s important to be realistic about the approach’s weaknesses and assess what background species need for protection. “We must be honest about what assumptions we make, whether they’re justifiable, and whether they can be examined in advance using data.”

INFOGRAPHIC: CHOOSING THE RIGHT UMBRELLA

Umbrella species are often chosen to represent an ecosystem in need of protection. The idea is that protecting the umbrella species will indirectly benefit habitat and other species in the area. But the strategy has its weaknesses. There are three varieties of the umbrella species concept as coined by Tim Caro in his book Conservation by Proxy—classic, local, and management— each of which is liable to fail if implemented incorrectly or in the wrong circumstances.

Classic umbrella strategy

Assumes that if researchers can protect the area that contains a viable population of an umbrella species, that effort will also maintain viable populations of other species in the area.

Risk: The reserve might not be big enough to cover viable populations of other species of concern.

Example: The jaguar (Panthera onca) served as an effective umbrella species for protecting other large mammals in Latin America but was less effective at shielding smaller animals such as rodents, likely due to differences in the size and scale of their respective habitats.

Local umbrella strategy

Makes no viability assumptions, instead simply assuming that protecting the areas where an umbrella species is present will also protect many other species in the same area.

Risk: Other species of conservation concern might not co-occur with the umbrella species and might therefore be unprotected.

Example: The northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) was found to be a good local umbrella species in the Italian Alps, offering protection for other birds species as well as butterflies and other background species. In northern Japan, however, despite being an effective umbrella for a variety of birds, goshawks were not effective as an indicator of the species diversity of butterflies, beetles, or native forest-floor plants.

Management umbrella strategy

Assumes that planned human management and intervention targeting an umbrella species will benefit a suite of other species in the same area.

Risk: The management actions taken to benefit the umbrella species might harm other species.

Example: In Wyoming, mowing intended to benefit the greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) resulted in a higher abundance of vesper sparrows but lower abundance of Brewer’s sparrows and sage thrashers, likely due to differences in land use.

(First published by The Scientist on August 1 2018. Available online at: https://www.the-scientist.com/features/umbrella-species–conservations-poster-children-64507)

High temperatures send bats swooping in – Irish Examiner, July 2 2018

Bats are harmless and benevolent. Amy Lewis presents a beginner’s guide to spotting these wonderful creatures in Ireland.

As darkness descends on another long summer’s day and we tug our curtains shut, a group of unique creatures are just beginning to emerge in every county across Ireland.

They can eat up to 3,000 insects in one night, have been found to defy some of the usual processes of ageing and have echolocation so finely tuned that they can navigate around a single strand of hair.

While they might sound like something from a sci-fi novel, they’re actually something we are all familiar with: Bats. Ireland is currently home to nine resident species of bat and summer is the ideal time to witness them in action.

“In summer, bats are not long out of hibernation, while it’s also reproduction season. This makes it peak foraging time for them,” says Megan Power, PhD research fellow at the Laboratory of Molecular Evolution and Mammalian Phylogenetics in UCD.

“The weather we’ve been having is ideal for them too. If the weather is good, insect populations will be high.”

Our most common bats are the common and soprano pipistrelles and the Leisler’s bat, also known as the Irish bat as Ireland is a stronghold for the species. Regardless of your location, Paul Scott of Dublin Bat Group and Bat Conservation Ireland says bats are easily found.

“The best place to spot them is somewhere with water and not too much street lighting, so perhaps by canals or in public parks. To see larger numbers, large lakes or canals are best,” says Paul, who adds that anywhere with trees or waterbodies attracts them due to the availability of insects. “The time to look for them is just after sunset.”

When it comes to choosing between rural and city living, bats aren’t fussy. In Dublin, places such as Phoenix Park, and the banks of the Dodder and Tolka rivers are popular bat-spotting sites, while Paul has even witnessed them flying above O’Connell St.

“You find them in strangest of places. They’re not at all bothered with people.”

Bat populations in Ireland can generally be described as stable, according to Dr Tina Aughney of Bat Conservation Ireland, adding that we must be cautious when saying this.

“Bats are very slow reproducing animals and only have one baby per year. You need to get about 25 years worth of data to see what is happening with them before you can really say something about their populations.”

To help in the conservation of Irish bats, Bat Conservation Ireland currently manages four main monitoring schemes: The car-based bat monitoring surveys, the brown long-eared bat roost monitoring scheme, lesser horseshoe bat roost monitoring and the all-Ireland Daubenton’s bat waterways survey. They place a great emphasis on citizen science and offer free training to members of the public who wish to get involved. The waterways survey, which takes place each August, is their most popular.

“We have up to 200 people participating each year. Along with learning to spot various species of bat, it’s great for seeing other wildlife such as badgers foxes and owls,” says Tina.

Volunteers can participate in one of the many two-hour training courses nationwide in July. The survey itself sees every team monitoring ten spots along a one kilometre stretch of waterway, each one for four minutes each. Bat Conservation Ireland will loan bat detectors — devices that pick up ultrasound and convert it to an audible sound — to anyone taking part.

People can also take smaller steps in their locality to help in bat conservation, by erecting a bat box, planting night-scented plants and reducing the amount of light in their garden and community. Additionally, they can take part in a bat walk held by one of the many local bat groups nationwide. Paul currently leads the Dublin Bat Group walks.

“Although it’s a night-time activity, you would be surprised at the number of kids there. Kids will be there until 11pm. because they’re fascinated by bats. When you start to tell anyone the facts, they become fascinated too.”

Paul tries to kick off the walks by dispelling some of the myths about bats. They are more closely related to humans and primates than rodents. Contrary to common belief, bats aren’t blind and they don’t get caught in people’s hair or spread rabies.

“Everyone is afraid of things that creep around in the dark,” he says. “For a long time, people didn’t know much about bats because they’re harder to study so people generated myths around them.”

The true facts about bats are as astounding as the myths. Earlier this year, a team of UCD researchers discovered one reason why certain species of bats have extraordinarily long lifespans relative to their small size. By focusing on telomeres — structures at the end of chromosomes that usually shorten with age and lead to cell breakdown — they found that some species of bat retain long telomeres throughout their lives. Through her research, which is funded through an Irish Research Council Scholarship, Megan is building on these previous findings.

“I’m trying to discover whether bats are regulating their telomeres during stressful life events,” she explains, adding that some bats have been found to live to 41 years of age.

While bats may help scientists to unlock some of the secrets about ageing, they also play other useful roles. “They are a bio-indicator meaning they are good indicators of how healthy our environment is,” says Paul. “Bats are an extremely vital part of our ecosystem,” adds Megan. “They help maintain and regulate insects. They provide key ecosystem services worldwide through the pollination of plants and crops.”

“I always encourage people to have a look at the many species of bat and the different things they do. I may be biased but I think they’re beautiful.”

More information can be found on the Bat Conservation Ireland Facebook page or website.

(First published in the Irish Examiner on July 2 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/lifestyle/features/high-temperatures-send-bats-swooping-in-852307.html)

Is it okay to remove Cowbird eggs from host nests? – Audubon.org, June 6 2018

It can be tempting to interfere with these brood parasites. But there are many reasons—legal and behavioral—to leave them alone.

No parent appreciates another meddling in their child-rearing efforts. Unfortunately for many songbirds in North America, meddling is the Brown-headed Cowbird’s modus operandi.

The species is our best-known brood parasite—organisms (like some birds, insects, and fish) that rely on others to raise their young. In birds, this typically describes a species that lays its eggs in a host’s nest and lets that other parent do the chick-raising, often to the detriment of the host’s own offspring. Cowbird chicks don’t directly harm their nestmates (by pushing them out of the nest, for instance, like some cuckoo species), but tend to grow faster and outcompete them for resources.

Due to a perceived sense of injustice, cowbirds are often vilified by humans, who occasionally take matters into their own hands by removing cowbird eggs from nests. These are usually well-intentioned attempts to “save” the chicks of other species—but is it a good idea to allow people’s drive to nurture interfere with nature?

The short answer: no. “The best solution is to leave cowbirds eggs alone,” says Steve Rothstein, Emeritus Professor of Zoology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has researched the effects of cowbird parasitism on endangered species. “It’s a natural process and we shouldn’t attach human values about killing or being sneaky to the natural world.”

The reasons are multifold, and encompass both the law and unintended consequences.

U.S. law already says that people should not interfere with cowbird eggs. As a native species, the Brown-headed Cowbird is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and taking eggs is illegal without a permit. While permits for cowbird control have been granted, it’s only done when they’re considered a threat to endangered birds. For example, in Michigan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service traps an average of 4,000 cowbirds every year to protect endangered Kirtland’s Warblers.

The law is only one reason to leave eggs untouched, Rothstein says; interference can have unintended effects. That’s because “most birds in North America don’t have egg-recognition abilities”—often not even for their own eggs. However, parents do keep track of the total mass of eggs in their nest. “Many seem to assume the cowbird egg is part of their clutch and will have a nest-desertion response if we remove a certain proportion of eggs,” Rothstein, who has examined this behavior in his research, says. They may even desert the entire area and find a new nesting spot.

“This response is universal among birds, as they have the option to re-nest,” he continues. “However, if it’s late in the breeding season, the bird might not have time to.”

Worse, egg removal can result in retribution by cowbird parents. A 2007 study, led by avian ecologist Jeffrey Hoover with the Illinois Natural History Survey, was the first to document what’s known as “mafia behavior.” In the experiment, scientists observed the effects of removing Brown-headed Cowbird eggs from parasitized warbler nests. In 56 percent of cases, cowbird mothers returned and ransacked the nest, destroying most or all eggs. Comparatively, six percent of nests were destroyed when humans didn’t interfere.

While no additional research has confirmed this behavior in Brown-headed Cowbirds, it highlights “a potential further complication to removing cowbird eggs,” says Matthew Louder, who studies cowbird brood parasitism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. For Louder, the only instances where cowbird egg removal is justifiable is when it’s legally conducted to help one of three endangered species: Golden-cheeked Warblers, Black-capped Vireos, and Kirtland’s Warblers.

“Cowbirds aren’t the main reason for their decline, and probably not even a great contributing factor. The only factor in the decline of these species is humans,” he says. “Now numbers are so low that any other problems [such as brood parasitism] would push them over the edge.” If cowbird control is permitted, Louder says it must be done alongside habitat restoration measures.

Rothstein agrees that cowbird control and habitat improvement must go together. “Cowbirds have been in North America for a million years,” he says. “If a species needs help, it’s because we have damaged their habitat. Any species that would go extinct just because of cowbirds and not human interference would have gone extinct long ago.”

All this evidence points to a single conclusion: Cowbird eggs should be left alone. It can be disturbing to observe what looks like “cheating” at the expense of less common species—but it’s just nature’s way, even if it’s ugly. Sarah Winnicki, an avian ecologist at Kansas State University, has found a way to adjust her own perspective on the species to avoid moralizing their behavior.

“I try to convince people about how amazing [cowbirds’] evolutionary story is,” she says. “How did they learn to find nests, to lay eggs, and to re-find them later? How do they learn to time their reproduction to their hosts? As an ornithologist, this is incredible to me.”

(First published on Audubon.org on June 6 2018. Available online at: https://www.audubon.org/news/is-it-okay-remove-cowbird-eggs-host-nests)

The Eskimo Curlew hasn’t been seen for 55 years. Is it time to declare it extinct? -Audubon, April 22 2018

Scientists hope the plight of this shorebird, once among the most common in North America, will spur conservation for other troubled curlew species.

Victor Emanuel will never forget the day he saw his first Eskimo Curlew. It was around 60 years ago, in Galveston, Texas, when the foot-long, brown-speckled bird poked its down-curved bill through the grass—a rare gem nearly invisible among a field of other mottled shorebirds. At first, Emanuel and several others believed it was a runt Whimbrel. But after checking all possible field marks and consulting guides, they confirmed that what they saw was the rare Eskimo Curlew. They were among the last people to see the species alive.

“There’s a chapter in my memoir in which I call it the bird of my life,” Emanuel says. “For a birder who had seen this bird in field guides, which said it was possibly extinct, it was like seeing a dinosaur. It had a huge effect on me.”

At one point, the Eskimo Curlew may have been one of the most common shorebirds in North America, with a population numbering in the many millions. Flocks once migrated from wintering grounds in South America, through the Great Plains, to breeding territories in Alaska and Canada—and back south off the Atlantic Coast.

For most people today, though, the species is merely a legend, fueled by old stories and the highly regarded 1954 book Last of the Curlews by Fred Bodsworth. Photographer Don Bleitz took the last known photo of the shorebird in Galveston in 1962, and the last confirmed sighting was in 1963, when a lone bird was shot in Barbados. In 1983, a reported sighting of 23 Eskimo Curlews in Texas stirred up much excitement, but it was not accepted by the state bird records committee.

“It seems quite unbelievable to me that so many birds would show up on a single occasion, and not be seen ever again,” says Jon McCracken, director of national programs at Bird Studies Canada. “It’s like verifying that there are UFOs out there without good solid physical evidence.”

Though most cite the Barbados record as the last true sighting of the Eskimo Curlew, reports are still occurring—but they’re mostly wishful thinking. “Every season starting in June or July, I get a call with someone reporting an Eskimo Curlew,” says Bob Gill, a shorebird biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Science Center in Anchorage who co-authored a detailed account of the species in The Birds of North America. “Invariably they are juvenile Whimbrels.”

What happened to this once-widespread species, you ask? They were hunted in large numbers through the 1800s; hunting migratory birds, except for those species approved by the government, largely ceased in 1918 with the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Yet hunting is not the sole cause of decline, Gill says.

“Was it a contributing factor? Absolutely. Was it the only factor? No way,” he says. “As this bird was being hunted, the prairies were being plowed under and a principal food source, the Rocky Mountain grasshopper, was going extinct.” These grasshoppers once had population booms in the billions; in 1875, they formed the largest recorded locust swarm: 1,800 miles long and 110 miles wide, blanketing Plattsmouth, Nebraska for five days. As grasslands were converted to cornfields, the locusts vanished—and grassland birds, like the curlew, did, too.

“Hunting is an easy thing to blame,” Gill continues. “I just hope people can be more objective and look at the big picture.”

That’s particularly important given the threats to the seven other curlew species. This genus of wading migratory shorebirds, distinguishable from others by their down-curved bill and mottled plumage, faces threats in regions across the globe. The Eurasian Curlew, for example, has seen its European breeding population decline by at least one-third in 30 years due to loss of its grassland habitat, and significant declines have also been recorded in central Asian populations. The Bristle-thighed Curlew, with 7,000 individuals, is currently classed as vulnerable by the IUCN Red List, with drops in numbers largely attributed to predation by introduced predators on its wintering grounds in tropical Oceania; considering that more than 50 percent of adults are flightless during autumn molt, they are particularly easy targets.

Then there’s the Far Eastern Curlew, with a population of 32,000 birds in 2006, according to Wetlands International estimates. Habitat loss on the Yellow Sea staging grounds is considered the primary threat to the species and, with the rate of intertidal habitat loss averaging over 1 percent annually, this trend is expected to continue. While the Long-billed Curlew, Whimbrel, and Little Curlew are not currently a cause for concern, due to their relatively stable populations and wide range, ongoing climate change and habitat degradation could threaten them in the future.

Finally, there’s the Slender-billed Curlew, which hasn’t been spotted since 1995. Similarly to the Eskimo Curlew, historical hunting and habitat loss are believed to be key to their disappearance.

The Eskimo Curlew has not been declared extinct—yet. It is currently considered “critically endangered (possibly extinct)” by the IUCN. The latest report by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada again declared the bird endangered in 2009. In 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service launched a five-year status review of the bird, which upon completion continued to list it as endangered.

Despite there being no confirmed sightings since 1963 and no evident breeding in more than 100 years, it’s difficult to definitively say whether the Eskimo Curlew is extinct.

“It’s a case of trying to prove a negative; absence of evidence isn’t proof of absence. If you can’t prove an absence, is it extinct or not?” says McCracken, who authored Canada’s 2009 report. “I personally believe that it probably, almost certainly, is extinct, and I think that’s the general consensus.”

Canada plans to reassess the Eskimo Curlew’s status in 2020, with no confirmed date yet for the U.S. review.

Regardless, circumstances remain dire for other curlews and birds that breed or migrate through landscapes that have been transformed. And based on the lack of optimism Gill hears at shorebird meetings, he’s not sure how much can be done to reverse the damage. For decades, scientists have sounded the alarm about the wildlife impacts of land fragmentation and the conversion of prairies and forests to farmland. At this point, he says, it might be too late. The changes people have made are vast; there’s no converting all of that farmland back to grassland.

Still, Gill maintains some hope that people might be convinced even quirky birds like curlews are worth the effort. And the story of the Eskimo Curlew could help.

“If we declare this bird extinct, let’s use it to our advantage and prevent others from becoming extinct,” he says. “I think anything we can do to raise public awareness will help [to protect other species]. We need to get people to get in touch with their concerns they may not have even known that they had.”

(First published on Audubon on April 20 2018. Available online at: http://www.audubon.org/news/the-eskimo-curlew-hasnt-been-seen-55-years-it-time-declare-it-extinct)

Tackling Ireland’s alien invaders – Irish Times, March 8 2018

The Japanese knotweed, rhododendron and giant hogweed are fast becoming household names as these pests continue to invade Irish landscapes. These ill-famed plants are just some of many invasive species causing destruction to Ireland’s ecosystems.

An inaugural global register of invasive species recently presented in Scientific Data shows that the Republic of Ireland is currently home to 1,266 non-native species – 63 of which have a negative impact. Ireland was one of 20 countries randomly selected for inclusion in this Global Registry of Introduced and Invasive Species (GRIIS), which will include every country by 2019.

“We focused solely on environmental and economic impacts,” says Shyama Pagad, lead author of the work and member of the IUCN SSC Invasive Species Specialist Group (ISSG). “We think it will help countries with trading partners. When you know your trading partner has listed this invasive species, you can set preventative measures to stop them from entering your country. It forms a basic alert system.”

While the ISSG researchers formed their database through analysing existing publications, they required the assistance of local editors to check and add to it. Invasive species officer at the National Biodiversity Data Centre Colette O’Flynn was recruited as editor for Ireland. The use of universal terminology, in addition to the fact that her team are currently undertaking a similar exercise, meant that editing wasn’t difficult.

“It’s always going to be a dynamic list,” O’Flynn says. “Assessments must be repeated as more animals come in and things we thought were invasive turn out not to be, or at least not as invasive as they appeared.”

Asked what our most harmful invasive species is, she says aquatics like the zebra mussel are particularly problematic. These creatures arrived in Ireland in the 1990s, attached to the hulls of imported leisure boats.

“Zebra mussels change the whole ecology of the lake system. They filter water when feeding; you would think that’s a great thing as they clean out the water but this causes more sunlight to reach the plants on the bottom. Those plants then grow more vigorously and this completely changes the food web in the lake.”

In addition to threatening lake systems and native mussels, Zebra mussels also block water intake pipes, filters and boat engines where they settle in large clusters.

Notorious plants such as Japanese knotweed are also acknowledged by O’Flynn as damaging species, which hold the potential to undermine road and building foundations. However, she feels that recent years have seen a big shift in efforts to deal with invasive species.

“This is driven by a number of things. Finding out more about species through databases like this definitely helps, as does people sending sighting reports to our centre,” she adds. “When we have the data, we can analyse it and use it to inform decision-making.”

The European Regulation of Invasive Alien Species enacted in 2015 involves a dynamic list of 49 invasive species of concern in the EU. Once a species is added, each member state is required to carry out appropriate prevention, early detection and rapid eradication and management measures.

Acknowledging the regulation’s potential, head of the Department of Environmental Science at IT Sligo Dr Frances Lucy says it hasn’t truly been enacted yet in Ireland or other member states. “The reason why [it’s not being followed] is because it’s a very new regulation. The European Commission is still gathering information and there hasn’t been any punitive measures attached to it yet.”

Lucy is a firm believer that citizen science is key to tackling our invasive species and in turn, protecting biodiversity. “Even if we had 1,000 biodiversity officers and a whole legislative system in place, it’s not what is going to save biodiversity in Ireland,” she notes. “Right now, we are in danger of disengaging from nature because we don’t spend as much time outdoors as we used to due to the virtual reality we’re using. Why not use virtual reality to re-engage people?”

She refers to the use of various apps, Twitter and other tools currently being used by the public to report and record various species. For example, the National Biodiversity Data Centre receives 10,000 sighting reports a month through interactive tools.

“The recording of species is one key area where citizens can get involved. The other vital part regards invasive species management, particularly biosecurity. The man on the street needs to know how to manage and prevent their spread,” she says. “This can be done by taking simple precautions every time we engage in outdoor recreational activities; this should be automatic, like putting on your seatbelt.”

If the Government put more funds into educating people on recognising and managing these species, money would be saved in the long run, Lucy points out.

While recognising it’s a concern, campaigns officer at the Irish Wildlife Trust Pádraic Fogarty feels the invasive species issue has “been overblown”.

“A lot of ecologists have taken their eye off the ball. Habitat loss, pollution and biodiversity loss are still our biggest problems in Ireland. Invasive species thrive in habitats that are damaged and degraded,” says Fogarty, who feels these big issues are not being addressed.

“The idea of invasive species is easier to tackle than habitat loss. That’s often more controversial, particularly as agriculture and peat extraction industries can be difficult to deal with.”

There’s an app for that

Technology plays an integral role in identifying and mapping locations of particular species, including invasive ones. The National Biodiversity Data Centre’s Biodiversity Data Capture App allows people to capture details of any species they encounter and send them directly to the National Biodiversity Data Centre’s database.

Meanwhile, the Report Invasive Plants app was developed by Limerick County Council in 2016 specifically in response to invasive plants. It records four species – Japanese knotweed, winter heliotrope, giant hogweed and Himalayan balsam – in addition to having an “other” category.

To date they have received 900 sighting reports from 130 individual users, with Japanese knotweed being the most commonly recorded. Collected data is fed back to the National Biodiversity Data Centre.

“We used cameras and GPS prior to this but it was very time consuming. With just one person doing it, it was never going to work,” explains senior executive engineer with Limerick County Council Anne Goggin. “There are other apps out there to capture invasives but many are complicated. We wanted something quick and simple, aimed at someone who is not a specialist but does have a passing interest.”

Inland Fisheries Ireland also have developed an app to allow for the reporting of invasive species occurring within Irish fresh water.

(First published in The Irish Times on March 8 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/tackling-ireland-s-alien-invaders-1.3419509)

Leopards that live in cities are protecting people from rabies – New Scientist, March 8 2018

When leopards stray into a city, people often fear them because of the danger they pose. But it turns out these big cats could be valuable neighbours: by preying on feral dogs in Mumbai, they are reducing the risk of people catching rabies.

About 20,000 people die of rabies in India every year. Feral dogs are the main source, as they bite people and pass on the rabies virus.

Christopher O’Bryan and Alexander Braczkowski at the University of Queensland and their colleagues compiled existing data on the diet of leopards living in Sanjay Gandhi National Park, on the edges of Mumbai. They found that 40 per cent of the average leopard’s diet consists of feral dogs.

All told, the 35 leopards in the park probably eat 1,500 dogs per year. Given how often the dogs bite people and how many of them have rabies, the leopards’ kills are preventing about 1,000 bite incidents per year – and 90 potential rabies cases.

“This study is a striking example of a large carnivorous animal providing a direct benefit to humans,” says O’Bryan.

The same could be true of other leopard populations that encroach on cities. The team found 19 studies describing leopards eating feral dogs in Asia and Africa. However, O’Bryan says that they would need to be studied more closely to be sure that they bring the same benefit.

The researchers also emphasise that leopards can  cause harm. In particular, they often kill livestock – leading people to persecute them.

“It’s difficult to weigh up the costs with the benefits with a large cat species that’s known to attack and even kill humans,” says O’Bryan. “We just want to provide an angle that hasn’t been explored before, despite the pieces of the puzzle being in front of us the whole time.”

Journal reference: Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, DOI: 10.1002/fee.1776

(First published online by New Scientist. Available online at: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2163166-leopards-that-live-in-cities-are-protecting-people-from-rabies/)