Would you ever allow your kids to wander off for the winter without knowing where they went until the following spring? Well, apart from rare moments of temptation during trying tantrums or adolescent stubbornness, of course you wouldn’t. And we shouldn’t neglect our birds during this time of the year either. After all, most species spend far more time off their breeding grounds than on them. In recent years there has been increasing recognition within the avian conservation community for the need for full life-cycle monitoring and conservation. That is, a need exists for gauging the health, threats, and survival rates of our bird populations during the entire year, identifying bottlenecks, and then taking action for conservation. Because grassland birds are declining faster than any other group of birds in North America, Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory (RMBO) initiated a unique monitoring project to gather baseline data on our wintering grassland birds.
In January 2007, 13 Mexicans joined two Americans and a Canadian in a cold ranch house recently purchased by The Nature Conservancy in the Chihuahuan Desert of northwestern Mexico. The plan was to collect data on bird distributions and abundances across the best remaining grasslands of the Mexican Chihuahuan Desert, a vast region encompassing parts of seven northern Mexican states. With partners in place, funding secured, and a protocol developed, it was time to train RMBO’s new partners to collect the data under a unified protocol and ensure that everyone could accurately identify these cryptically colored and
Snow covered grasslands of Janos, Chihuahua, Mexico. January 2007.
After introductions, a warm meal, and some background on the project, we opened the door to the Janos Grasslands, and it almost immediately began to snow. An unusually strong and prolonged snowstorm settled upon us and persisted throughout most of the week. Aside from wet shoes, chilled bones, and fogged up binoculars, the storm was, in a way, a blessing. Many difficult to observe priority species such as Grasshopper Sparrow and Baird’s Sparrow were now walking in the open on top of the snow, affording us excellent opportunities to point out the diagnostic field marks that best separate them. Our new partners, who were accustomed to the decidedly warmer winters of Monterrey, Nuevo León, suffered through with good humor and a strong focus on the task at hand. Toward the end of the week, we benefited from warmer weather and many opportunities to study the birds under normal conditions.
Six years, 47 trained field technicians (the vast majority Mexican), 2,800 miles of transects surveyed, and 293,370 birds later, the data that RMBO and partners have collected has been invaluable in understanding the habitat needs, winter ranges, and dynamic movements between successive winters of grassland birds. This work also helped uncover the core wintering area of Baird’s Sparrow along the eastern front of the Sierra Madre in Durango, and a new population of Worthen’s Sparrow in Coahuila. In all, a robust dataset of 30 priority species including Ferruginous Hawk, Sprague’s Pipit, and Chestnut-collared Longspur has been assembled. Thanks to this dataset, we now understand that a large network of healthy grasslands throughout the Chihuahuan Desert is essential for these nomadic grassland birds to find the cover and food needed to survive each winter. The spotty and unreliable rains of this region fuel the production of the grass seeds these birds rely upon. In most years several parts of this vast desert region receive far less rain than average, leaving poor conditions for wintering seed eaters.
The 2007 regional monitoring field crew reviewing GPS use.
You can now explore the nearly 110,000 bird observations recorded on this project between 2007 and 2009 in eBird. RMBO is proud to contribute these data to help fill in a gap in the eBird dataset, as well as gaps in our collective understanding of the life cycles of these species outside their breeding grounds. The data will be used by Cornell and the avian conservation community to elucidate species’ migratory behavior to develop conservation plans and habitat relationships, as well as to formulate conservation strategies and ranch management plans.
Screenshots of Chestnut-collared Longspur eBird records before and after RMBO data were uploaded in northwestern Chihuahua, Mexico.
This project has been generously funded by the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act, U.S. Forest Service International Programs, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Commission for Environmental Cooperation, The Nature Conservancy, USDA Rio Grande Research Center at Sul Ross State University, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and the Sonoran Joint Venture, and has been made possible through the excellent work of our many partners, especially the Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León.
Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory is a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to conserving birds and their habitats from Montana to Mexico. Based in Colorado, our International Program plays a key role in providing full life-cycle monitoring, habitat improvement, and capacity building in the Chihuahuan Desert of Mexico and the southwestern U.S. Birds don’t recognize borders, so to achieve effective conservation we must address their full life-cycle needs. We are broadening our partnerships and working to enhance critical wintering habitat for grassland birds. We are also currently partnering with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to develop a video to motivate and inspire private landowners in northern Mexico to conserve and support healthy grasslands.
Contributed by: Greg Levandoski, International
Biologist, Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory. Photos by Lucas