Sunday, November 22, 2015

Urban Conservation Project for Owls in the city of Americana, São Paolo state, Brazil

I had the great honour on a recent trip to be introduced to a grass-roots owl conservation project in Brazil. Gustavo Pinto, one of the lead community activists in this initiative, showed Norton Santos and myself the areas that had been set aside and some of the owls that inhabit them. Grass and shrub habitat on the outskirts of the city of Americana are inhabited by Short-eared Owls, Burrowing Owls, Striped Owls and Barn Owls. Some readers might be surprised to learn of owls in an urban context but this is quite common around the globe. In this case, this habitat was increasingly threatened by condominium developments and arson during the breeding season of the owls. Gustavo and others engaged the community in getting several parcels set aside (this took several years to achieve), putting up signs about the owls and their habitat, and in reporting arson and putting out fires where necessary. This project has now become a source of pride for the community and they are happy to pitch in to help the owls. Some community members even help monitor the breeding success of the Short-eared Owls. In addition to the simple conservation benefits, there is also a large community awareness benefit and education opportunities. This is a great example of some of the simple grass-roots initiatives around the world that benefit owls. I have placed six photos below:

  1.  My photo of a sign about Short-eared Owls (mentions status, threats and conservation measures)

  2.  My photo of a Short-eared Owl perched in one of the grassland areas (shows their preferred habitat in this area)

   3.  My photo of a Short-eared Owl flying over the same area (you can see some of the urban habitat in the background)

   4.  My photo of the Burrowing Owl we found with dark eyes and unusually dark plumage (this eye colouration is well known from the Florida population in North America but I had never seen this anywhere in South America before – see Gustavo’s earlier post)

 5.  My photo of two Burrowing Owls together, comparing the dark-eyed individual with a typical individual from the area. 

  6.  A photo of Gustavo’s stylish vehicle and its decals that he uses so well to promote the owls of the city of Americana (all Gustavo’s photos) and the three of us for good measure. 

People can make a difference!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Alianza del Pastizal - The Grassland Alliance

It was an enormous honour to see the Alianza del Pastizal (Grasslands Alliance - see: in action at the 9th Southern Cone Grassland Ranchers Meeting. This alliance is an amazing conservation initiative that is doing the Birdlife International network proud! Those of us striving for meaningful conservation in North America’s grasslands could learn a lot from Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil and their remarkable collaboration that offers great hope for South American grassland (“pampa”) threatened species as well as over-wintering Bobolink, Upland Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, American Golden-Plover and others. Thank you to the Alianza del Pastizal for the generous invitation and to my many Brazilian friends who were so generous and hospitable and to all those new colleagues for a profound dose of inspiration. Special thanks to John Beaver of National Audubon who co-presented with me in Spanish in front of 460 people! Special thanks to the Schad Foundation for supporting Bird Studies Canada’s grassland bird research and conservation initiatives. I gave my impressions at the meeting here:
(y en español para mis amigos hispanoparlantes a: Here is the group photo on the final day, followed by a photo of John and I presenting:.  

After having so greatly enjoyed the chance to see how the Alianza del Pastizal is working in the Southern Cone grasslands of Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil, I decided to share a few photos of some of the avian beneficiaries of this conservation initiative.

Let’s start by painting a little picture of the landscape in the southern cone where a variety of native grassland types occur. I took this photo in the Cerro Verde area near Santana Do Livramento (special thanks to Glayson Benke for guiding us there) in extreme southern Brazil near the border with Uruguay, where the 9th annual Southern Cone Grassland Ranchers Meeting was held. You can get a sense of the grassland interspersed with trees, shrubs and wetlands that occurs here. As you can see from the fences, and as with the North American prairie, today, this is a “working landscape” where “gauchos” (cowboys) and others make their livelihood. The Alianza del Pastizal uses a system of best management practices and other techniques to support ranchers that participate in conservation. Organic, grass-fed beef is raised following careful protocols in such a way as to maintain the ecological integrity and biodiversity of the lands. The intent is to benefit the birds and other biodiversity (and these birds risk losing their habitat if the pasture changes to other land use types as a result of market whims) but the ranchers also benefit because they sell their product under a registered label (carne del pastizal) and consumers pay a premium to support conservation and receive a high quality product. After 10 years, the alliance is starting to demonstrate just how effective this strategy is in maintaining the occupancy of threatened species on these lands. I will share just a few photos of some of the area’s birds. 

Red-winged Tinamou (Rhynchotus rufescens)
If you are surprised by the association of birds and cattle it is important to remember that these grasslands have been home to endemic bird species for a long time and they have been home to their share of megafauna over evolutionary history. Today, one of the key practices is controlled stocking rates so that the grasslands are not degraded and still provide cover for species like this large Red-winged Tinamou and you can see the tall grass in this photo. At 36 cm in length this somewhat chicken-like tinamou is about the size of a small grouse. The tinamous are a single ancient family (Tinamidae) within the order Tinamiformes. They only occur in the Neotropics and although they may look like grouse and quail they are not closely related at all (they are closer to the ratites).  

Spotted Nothura (Nothura maculosa), Cerro Verde, Brazil
Another grassland tinamou in this area is the beautifully cryptic Spotted Nothura, also in the tinamou family but much smaller than the previous. You may have to look twice to spot this bird hiding in the tall grass.

Greater Rhea (Rhea americana)
The southern cone grasslands are home to two ratite species – the rheas (there is also a third species of rhea in South America’s montane desert). The ratites are of course large flightless birds that include the largest extant species of birds. The Greater Rhea stands about 130 – 140 cm tall (not nearly as large as an ostrich) and they roam the pampas and some other open habitat types of southern South America. They are mostly reliant on natural grassland; however, they make good use of the well managed pastures of the Alianza ranchers. Apparently they have a skill to be able to walk between or under the wires of the cattle fences, although I have not witnessed this myself.    

Giant Wood-Rail (Aramides ypecaha)
In the wet grass surrounding one of the many lagoons and shallow wetlands of Cerro Verde, we were greeted to magnificent looks at the elegant Giant Wood-Rail. Although a member of the rail family (Rallidae), these large inhabitants of the pampas are not nearly as secretive as many other rails.

Grassland Yellow-Finch (Sicalis luteola)
In the tall grass we find the Grassland Yellow-Finch,  a small but elegant grassland species that is easily located by their display flight and song. Like many grassland birds around the world, delivering their song from above the grasses (in flight) helps it to carry further.   

Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia)
A familiar face occurs here too. Unlike in Canada however, these Burrowing Owls are not migratory and their populations are doing well in the area (they also occur in urban areas here).

Sadly though, I didn’t manage to photograph any North American migrants on this short trip, nor was there time to seek out some of the rarest inhabitants of the region. I shall return one day to explore the Southern Cone grasslands more thoroughly! I especially want to see the progress of the Alianza del Pastizal and what they are doing for grassland birds!

Monday, November 2, 2015

A Note on Snowy Owls

We have already seen a lot of media attention to the southern flight of Snowy Owls this year, some of it suggesting that these birds are starving or exhausted. There always seems to be a lot of hyperbole in the coverage of Snowy Owl irruptions; however these irruptions are complex and nuanced. Whilst it is true that some Snowy Owls may be pushed out of optimal habitat and that some may be very poorly fed or even emaciated, this is certainly not true of every Snowy Owl you see in southern locations. In some years, food supply may be better than in others and the number of owls in poor or good condition may vary. Many healthy Snowy Owls are injured by vehicles and collisions and sometimes the cause of emaciation relates to prior injury or illness. There can also be other complicating factors.

It is important to recognise that this is a natural cycle at work here and not to make over-reaching conclusions such as all Snowies are starving or Snowies are moving south because they are starving. Nonetheless, it is also important to recognise that there is a possibility that the Snowy Owl you are observing could be food stressed or forced into suboptimal habitat and therefore need plenty of room (don’t try to get close). Such birds may not have the energy reserve to flee or may stay motionless for other reasons (see our “signs of stress in owls” document in the files section) and your presence may be causing duress. Above all, never purposely approach a Snowy Owl on foot – remain in your vehicle if at all possible and always keep a respectful distance.

Photo by Christian Artuso shows a Snowy Owl in low, level, sustained flight across an agricultural area in southern Manitoba, Canada, part of the regular wintering range of this species.

Saturday, October 31, 2015


Concern continues to rise for the shorebirds of the East Asian flyway with Far Eastern Curlew and Great Knot being uplisted from Vulnerable to Endangered and Bar-tailed Godwit, Red Knot, Curlew Sandpiper, and Red-necked Stint all being uplisted to Near-threatened. See: Photo:
Far Eastern Curlew (Numenius madagasc
ariensis), South Korea, © Christian Artuso

Friday, October 30, 2015

Red-list Update

When a once abundant species like Hooded Vulture gets upgraded to Critically endangered (CR), there is clearly something very wrong! Birdlife International’s 2015 updates to the IUCN red list are now viewable at:

Sunday, October 11, 2015


I photographed this Spoon-billed Sandpiper (Calidris pygmaea) in South Korea in 2005 (the bird on the right is a Dunlin) but this critically endangered species in now on the very brink of extinction. Their massive decline, and the decline of many other species that use the East Asian-Australasian Flyway is strongly linked to the ecological devastation of major stop-over sites (much more so than to changes on the breeding grounds or wintering grounds) as this post  and this article discuss. This is a compelling example of the need for full life cycle monitoring and conservation planning.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Documenting large number of moving Common Terns

On September 15th 2015 I estimated 1400 Common Tern flying over Long Point, Ontario (conservative total) as per eBird checklist Here is photo documentation of a few of the many flocks that flew southward on the stiff southwesterly winds and a photo stitch of several cropped photos to document plumage features.

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