birds

Tag: birds

Golden-crowned kinglet (Regulus satrapa). Photo: Minette Layne (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Golden-crowned kinglets in Puget Sound have seen a steep decline since 1968

The number of golden-crowned kinglets in the Puget Sound watershed has declined by more than 91% over a recent 50-year period, according to data from the North American Breeding Bird Survey. The data was reported by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, which tracks the information for the Puget Sound Partnership’s terrestrial bird indicator. The indicator was established to monitor the health of Puget Sound’s species and food webs.
The findings come amid widespread bird declines across North America. Overall, bird numbers across the Continent dropped by almost 30% over the last half-century, a loss of more than three billion birds that biologists in the journal Science called “staggering.”
The figures for Puget Sound show an even steeper rate of decline for the kinglets, which inhabit Puget Sound’s interior forests. Over the 50-year period from 1968 to 2018, golden-crowned kinglets declined by an average of 4.78% per year, according to WDFW biologist Scott Pearson, who compiled the information for the Partnership’s terrestrial bird population abundance indicator. That amounts to a population loss of 91.36% over the duration of the survey. The declines were measured in “routes that occur, or partially occur, within the Puget Sound watershed,” according to the Partnership’s website.

Map of North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) routes that occur, or partially occur, within the Puget Sound watershed.

The golden-crowned kinglet is described by the American Bird Conservancy as “one of the world’s smallest perching birds,” and lives in Puget Sound’s coniferous forests year-round. It feeds mostly on insects in trees and shrubs and must eat almost constantly to feed its high metabolic rate. It is one of three normally common forest species measured by the Partnership’s Vital Sign indicator. The other forest indicator species include the varied thrush, which declined by less than 1% per year over the study period, and the brown creeper which saw moderate increases of about 2% per year. The Vital Sign indicator takes an average of the status of all three birds as a way of measuring the health of the food web in interior forest habitats. Driven by the drop in kinglets, the overall indicator showed a decline of 46% over 50 years.
Other bird species measured by the indicator are several “human-associated species” including the American crow, European starling, rock pigeon, house finch and house sparrow. Biologists say those birds adapt more easily to human development and can nest on human structures or eat discarded food in garbage. On average, those birds were more stable but still declined as a group by 8%. The Partnership has classified the status of the terrestrial bird abundance Vital Sign indicator as “Getting Worse.”
According to Pearson, the decline in kinglets is “not well understood” but could be driven by factors such as loss of forest habitat and pressures from climate change leading to forest fires or increasing winter storminess.
The decline in forest birds tracks roughly with the Partnership’s Land Cover and Development Vital Sign indicator which shows an estimated decline in forest habitat in Puget Sound of 836 acres per year. “To the region it [forest bird declines] suggests that we are losing our predominant land cover,” Pearson says.
Percent change per year (1968-2018) in population abundance of three forest interior bird species. (Graph courtesy of the Puget Sound Partnership and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.)

Kinglets are also prone to die-offs during severe winter events such as ice storms. “If trees freeze up, the birds can’t get to the bugs to eat,” Pearson says. “We have had a number of unusual winter events,” a phenomenon that is predicted to increase in frequency, according to climate change models.
While golden-crowned kinglets have dropped precipitously in Puget Sound and are declining generally, they are still relatively common across North America. “It’s hard to imagine we would get to a world without kinglets,” says Pearson.
However, the story of the golden-crowned kinglet in Puget Sound may be one of many playing out across North America. According to the 2019 article in Science  that described the massive loss of billions of birds across the Continent, the declines “are not restricted to rare and threatened species—those once considered common and wide-spread are also diminished.”
One positive sign for the kinglets may be that the loss of forest habitat in Puget Sound, while still ongoing, is less severe than it has been in previous years. According to the Partnership, forest declines in the watershed have dropped to about 38% of what they were in the early 2000s. “If this decline in habitat loss continues, it will be interesting to see if the rate of forest associated bird populations begins to stabilize,” Pearson and his colleagues wrote on the Partnership’s website.

A tufted puffin gets a running start near Smith Island in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Washington. Photo: Mick Thompson https://flic.kr/p/WSmZnE (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Will Puget Sound lose the tufted puffin?

Occasionally, this space includes reports and essays from guest writers on the subject of Puget Sound ecosystem recovery. Biologist and author Eric Wagner has this look at the federal government’s recent decision to decline special protection for the tufted puffin under the Endangered Species Act. While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says that the puffin has “robust populations across the majority of its range,” the bird’s numbers in Washington, including Puget Sound, have dropped severely in recent years. Wagner recalls what it was like when things were different and the colorful bird known as the “sea clown” could be spotted more easily.
By Eric Wagner
In the December 3, 2020 issue of the Federal Register, tucked between a correction from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and a NOAA decision on Pacific cod fishing permits, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a notice saying the agency was declining to list eleven species as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Many of the species I had never heard of: three types of pyrgs (snails), the relict dace (a fish), the Clear Lake hitch (another fish). But one I knew well: the tufted puffin.
I grew up near the northern Oregon coast watching tufted puffins nearby at Cannon Beach, where a few dozen pairs nested on Haystack Rock. They were closest thing the town had to a local celebrity. Come April, all sorts of people—not just birders—would go down to the rock to start the annual puffin vigil. Before long the birds would oblige. First one, then two, then more and more would appear, their stubby shapes flying circuits around the 235-foot-tall coastal monolith among the clouds of gulls. Eventually they would land on the rock’s grass-covered summit and disappear into their burrows to breed.

Throughout most of the year, the plumage of nonbreeding tufted puffins is all black. Photo: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Throughout most of the year, the plumage of nonbreeding tufted puffins is all black. Photo: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Tufted puffins are striking birds in the auk family. With their two congeners, the horned and Atlantic puffin, they are sometimes called sea parrots, or the clowns of the sea. Adults can grow up to sixteen inches long and weigh more than two pounds. They wear a sleek cloak of black feathers throughout the year, but when breeding their face turns so white it looks painted. Their large bills, too, become a brilliant orange, and they grow long thick creamy tufts above their eyes. Standing outside their burrows and gazing into the middle distance, the wind ruffling both the grass around them and the tufts on their heads, they could cut comically serious figures. Or maybe it was seriously comic. Whatever the case, everyone loved the puffins.
The sea clowns, alas, have become increasingly rare of late, not just in Oregon, but all up and down the West Coast. In Washington, tufted puffins were once common in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and along the outer coast, with 25,000 birds spread among 44 known breeding colonies in the early 1900s. Those numbers stayed stable for the next several decades; surveys in the 1970s and 1980s estimated more than 23,000 birds bred at 35 known colonies. Then the bottom started to fall out. By 2009 biologists estimated that fewer than 3,000 puffins bred in Washington, and the number of known colonies had fallen to just 19. Counts since then have only gotten worse. In the Salish Sea, colonies at Protection Island and Smith Island have shrunk almost to nothing.
A suite of factors has driven the puffin’s decline. In June 1991, for instance, the Tenyo Maru, a Japanese fishing vessel, sank about 25 miles northwest of Cape Flattery, spilling over 400,000 gallons of fuel oil. Thousands of seabirds were killed, including an estimated 9% of the state’s puffins. But even as the risk of oil spills from rising vessel traffic remains a concern, changing oceanic conditions and large-scale declines in marine productivity are the greater existential threat. These changes have made it harder for puffins to find their preferred forage fish prey, harder for them to raise their chicks (called, naturally, pufflings). It was for this reason that in 2014 the Natural Resources Defense Council petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the puffins of the contiguous states as a distinct population segment—the same approach used to protect the southern resident killer whales and some individual salmon runs.
A tufted puffin catches fish near Destruction Island on the Washington coast. Photo: Scott Pearson/WDFW
A tufted puffin catches fish near Destruction Island on the Washington coast. Photo: Scott Pearson/WDFW

Getting a species listed can clearly take a long time and is frequently subject to litigation, so federal officials usually go to some length to explain how they arrived at their conclusions. Where other species in the December 3 notice had several paragraphs devoted to the rationale behind the decision, the tufted puffin received only three: the species is widely distributed across the North Pacific Ocean, with 82% of the population being in North America, and most of that in Alaska (first paragraph); although the species faces a range of threats, from climate change to oil spills to fisheries bycatch to human disturbance, “the best available information for tufted puffins indicates adequate redundancy and representation across the species’ range, including robust populations across the majority of its range” (second); on account of this robustness, listing was not warranted (last).
Conservation biology is considered an applied science, which implies a sort of practicality. But conservation as an act is at heart aspirational, even idealistic. Some organism is at risk of going extinct if things continue unchanged. Only by stopping or curtailing certain human behaviors, be it logging or fishing or hunting or draining an aquifer or building a subdivision or filling a waterbody with toxins or pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for two hundred years—the list is very, very long—do the odds of that organism’s survival increase even a little.
Ecological dynamics, on the other hand, can hardly be called idealistic. They tend instead to be binary: dead or alive, growing or shrinking, here or not here. But ecology can have its aspirational moments if you will. Not to imply intent, but a species is an ambitious entity. It seeks to occupy as much space as it can, given its physiological needs and the resources available. You see this with the tufted puffin. It needs a place to nest and fish to eat. California, Oregon, and Washington represent the southern tip of the species’ range. In this they are, in a way, aspirational. Yes, most of North America’s tufted puffins are in Alaska, but for some period of time a good number were able to venture south and make a home on the rugged sea stacks, sandstone cliffs, and windswept islands along the coastline abutting the California Current.
Visitors hoping to see puffins at Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach, Oregon. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Visitors hoping to see puffins at Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach, Oregon. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (CC BY-NC 2.0)

No longer. Here, the practical leanings of conservation, at least as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conceives it, become clearer. It is true that across much of its range the tufted puffin is abundant. Some colonies in the Aleutian Islands may host more than 100,000 birds. In ecological terms the species appears to be going through a range contraction, abandoning marginal habitat while staying robust in its core habitat. While range contractions can herald larger problems to come, they are not uncommon. That Washington, Oregon, and California will lose the tufted puffin is unfortunate but not unendurable so long as plenty remain in Alaska. That said, with the puffin, it is unclear how much longer their core habitat will be so suitable; the number of seabird mass mortality events in the North Pacific is on a worrisome rise. Soon we may have to have a conversation about puffin conservation in which the declines are widespread and undeniable no matter the prism through which one chooses to view them.
But that will be a matter for another day. For those of us on the West Coast, there is not much to do other than head out in spring, wait for the puffins to return, see how many are left, and learn a little about their lives so that, should the need arise, more assertive steps can be taken. How much longer they will cling to these territories with their little toe claws is uncertain. If they continue to decline at the current rate, they have perhaps forty years left in Washington. I for one will be sorry to see them go. But it was nice to have them while they were here.
 
Eric Wagner writes about science and the environment from his home in Seattle, where he lives with his wife and daughter. His writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Orion, The Atlantic and High Country News, among other places. He is the author of “Penguins in the Desert” and co-author of “Once and Future River: Reclaiming the Duwamish.” His most recent book is “After the Blast: The Ecological recovery of Mount St. Helens,” published in 2020 by University of Washington Press. He holds a PhD in Biology from the University of Washington.

A tufted puffin gets a running start near Smith Island in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Washington. Photo: Mick Thompson https://flic.kr/p/WSmZnE (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Will Puget Sound lose the tufted puffin?

Occasionally, this space includes reports and essays from guest writers on the subject of Puget Sound ecosystem recovery. Biologist and author Eric Wagner has this look at the federal government’s recent decision to decline special protection for the tufted puffin under the Endangered Species Act. While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says that the puffin has “robust populations across the majority of its range,” the bird’s numbers in Washington, including Puget Sound, have dropped severely in recent years. Wagner recalls what it was like when things were different and the colorful bird known as the “sea clown” could be spotted more easily.
By Eric Wagner
In the December 3, 2020 issue of the Federal Register, tucked between a correction from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and a NOAA decision on Pacific cod fishing permits, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a notice saying the agency was declining to list eleven species as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Many of the species I had never heard of: three types of pyrgs (snails), the relict dace (a fish), the Clear Lake hitch (another fish). But one I knew well: the tufted puffin.
I grew up near the northern Oregon coast watching tufted puffins nearby at Cannon Beach, where a few dozen pairs nested on Haystack Rock. They were closest thing the town had to a local celebrity. Come April, all sorts of people—not just birders—would go down to the rock to start the annual puffin vigil. Before long the birds would oblige. First one, then two, then more and more would appear, their stubby shapes flying circuits around the 235-foot-tall coastal monolith among the clouds of gulls. Eventually they would land on the rock’s grass-covered summit and disappear into their burrows to breed.

Throughout most of the year, the plumage of nonbreeding tufted puffins is all black. Photo: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Throughout most of the year, the plumage of nonbreeding tufted puffins is all black. Photo: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Tufted puffins are striking birds in the auk family. With their two congeners, the horned and Atlantic puffin, they are sometimes called sea parrots, or the clowns of the sea. Adults can grow up to sixteen inches long and weigh more than two pounds. They wear a sleek cloak of black feathers throughout the year, but when breeding their face turns so white it looks painted. Their large bills, too, become a brilliant orange, and they grow long thick creamy tufts above their eyes. Standing outside their burrows and gazing into the middle distance, the wind ruffling both the grass around them and the tufts on their heads, they could cut comically serious figures. Or maybe it was seriously comic. Whatever the case, everyone loved the puffins.
The sea clowns, alas, have become increasingly rare of late, not just in Oregon, but all up and down the West Coast. In Washington, tufted puffins were once common in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and along the outer coast, with 25,000 birds spread among 44 known breeding colonies in the early 1900s. Those numbers stayed stable for the next several decades; surveys in the 1970s and 1980s estimated more than 23,000 birds bred at 35 known colonies. Then the bottom started to fall out. By 2009 biologists estimated that fewer than 3,000 puffins bred in Washington, and the number of known colonies had fallen to just 19. Counts since then have only gotten worse. In the Salish Sea, colonies at Protection Island and Smith Island have shrunk almost to nothing.
A suite of factors has driven the puffin’s decline. In June 1991, for instance, the Tenyo Maru, a Japanese fishing vessel, sank about 25 miles northwest of Cape Flattery, spilling over 400,000 gallons of fuel oil. Thousands of seabirds were killed, including an estimated 9% of the state’s puffins. But even as the risk of oil spills from rising vessel traffic remains a concern, changing oceanic conditions and large-scale declines in marine productivity are the greater existential threat. These changes have made it harder for puffins to find their preferred forage fish prey, harder for them to raise their chicks (called, naturally, pufflings). It was for this reason that in 2014 the Natural Resources Defense Council petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the puffins of the contiguous states as a distinct population segment—the same approach used to protect the southern resident killer whales and some individual salmon runs.
A tufted puffin catches fish near Destruction Island on the Washington coast. Photo: Scott Pearson/WDFW
A tufted puffin catches fish near Destruction Island on the Washington coast. Photo: Scott Pearson/WDFW

Getting a species listed can clearly take a long time and is frequently subject to litigation, so federal officials usually go to some length to explain how they arrived at their conclusions. Where other species in the December 3 notice had several paragraphs devoted to the rationale behind the decision, the tufted puffin received only three: the species is widely distributed across the North Pacific Ocean, with 82% of the population being in North America, and most of that in Alaska (first paragraph); although the species faces a range of threats, from climate change to oil spills to fisheries bycatch to human disturbance, “the best available information for tufted puffins indicates adequate redundancy and representation across the species’ range, including robust populations across the majority of its range” (second); on account of this robustness, listing was not warranted (last).
Conservation biology is considered an applied science, which implies a sort of practicality. But conservation as an act is at heart aspirational, even idealistic. Some organism is at risk of going extinct if things continue unchanged. Only by stopping or curtailing certain human behaviors, be it logging or fishing or hunting or draining an aquifer or building a subdivision or filling a waterbody with toxins or pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for two hundred years—the list is very, very long—do the odds of that organism’s survival increase even a little.
Ecological dynamics, on the other hand, can hardly be called idealistic. They tend instead to be binary: dead or alive, growing or shrinking, here or not here. But ecology can have its aspirational moments if you will. Not to imply intent, but a species is an ambitious entity. It seeks to occupy as much space as it can, given its physiological needs and the resources available. You see this with the tufted puffin. It needs a place to nest and fish to eat. California, Oregon, and Washington represent the southern tip of the species’ range. In this they are, in a way, aspirational. Yes, most of North America’s tufted puffins are in Alaska, but for some period of time a good number were able to venture south and make a home on the rugged sea stacks, sandstone cliffs, and windswept islands along the coastline abutting the California Current.
Visitors hoping to see puffins at Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach, Oregon. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Visitors hoping to see puffins at Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach, Oregon. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (CC BY-NC 2.0)

No longer. Here, the practical leanings of conservation, at least as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conceives it, become clearer. It is true that across much of its range the tufted puffin is abundant. Some colonies in the Aleutian Islands may host more than 100,000 birds. In ecological terms the species appears to be going through a range contraction, abandoning marginal habitat while staying robust in its core habitat. While range contractions can herald larger problems to come, they are not uncommon. That Washington, Oregon, and California will lose the tufted puffin is unfortunate but not unendurable so long as plenty remain in Alaska. That said, with the puffin, it is unclear how much longer their core habitat will be so suitable; the number of seabird mass mortality events in the North Pacific is on a worrisome rise. Soon we may have to have a conversation about puffin conservation in which the declines are widespread and undeniable no matter the prism through which one chooses to view them.
But that will be a matter for another day. For those of us on the West Coast, there is not much to do other than head out in spring, wait for the puffins to return, see how many are left, and learn a little about their lives so that, should the need arise, more assertive steps can be taken. How much longer they will cling to these territories with their little toe claws is uncertain. If they continue to decline at the current rate, they have perhaps forty years left in Washington. I for one will be sorry to see them go. But it was nice to have them while they were here.
 
Eric Wagner writes about science and the environment from his home in Seattle, where he lives with his wife and daughter. His writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Orion, The Atlantic and High Country News, among other places. He is the author of “Penguins in the Desert” and co-author of “Once and Future River: Reclaiming the Duwamish.” His most recent book is “After the Blast: The Ecological recovery of Mount St. Helens,” published in 2020 by University of Washington Press. He holds a PhD in Biology from the University of Washington.

Cacophony of snow geese

A mention in The Seattle Times this morning inspired today’s blog. The arrival of winter also means the arrival of snow geese on the Skagit Delta. A great spot for viewing the geese is the area near Fir Island, a nexus of agricultural fields and tidal wetlands that serve as a critical stop for birds along the Pacific Flyway.
Anyone who has ever witnessed the tens of thousands of snow geese that gather here each year will be impressed by the sudden, dramatic launches of huge flocks that turn the sky into what my young son called a “roof of birds.”

photo of snow geese lifting off in Skagit County, WA
A flock of snow geese lifts off

The cacophony of sound that results is akin to pandemonium. The Times notes: “The sound of a flock of snow geese can be heard from a mile away.” Listen to this audio recording of snow geese at the Skagit Wildlife Area (mp3).
This audio file is copyright 2011 by Jeff Rice for the Puget Sound Institute and the Western Soundscape Archive. You are encouraged to download it and use it under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
You will find more media such as this, as well as natural history and scientific information about the Puget Sound watershed in the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. Look for the encyclopedia online in the spring of 2012.

Cacophony of snow geese

A mention in The Seattle Times this morning inspired today’s blog. The arrival of winter also means the arrival of snow geese on the Skagit Delta. A great spot for viewing the geese is the area near Fir Island, a nexus of agricultural fields and tidal wetlands that serve as a critical stop for birds along the Pacific Flyway.
Anyone who has ever witnessed the tens of thousands of snow geese that gather here each year will be impressed by the sudden, dramatic launches of huge flocks that turn the sky into what my young son called a “roof of birds.”

photo of snow geese lifting off in Skagit County, WA
A flock of snow geese lifts off

The cacophony of sound that results is akin to pandemonium. The Times notes: “The sound of a flock of snow geese can be heard from a mile away.” Listen to this audio recording of snow geese at the Skagit Wildlife Area (mp3).
This audio file is copyright 2011 by Jeff Rice for the Puget Sound Institute and the Western Soundscape Archive. You are encouraged to download it and use it under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
You will find more media such as this, as well as natural history and scientific information about the Puget Sound watershed in the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. Look for the encyclopedia online in the spring of 2012.