Out & About: Audubon Societies Mark 100 Years of Migratory Bird Act Treaty

  • The red-winged blackbird is one of the species protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. (Courtesy of Blake Allison)

Valley News Correspondent
Friday, May 04, 2018

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a federal law enacted in 1918, back when the practice of shooting wild birds for sport — along with the demand for feathers to adorn ladies’ hats — had begun to take an alarming toll on a number of bird species.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, the MBTA makes it illegal to “take, possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase, barter, or offer for sale, purchase, or barter, any migratory bird, or the parts, nests, or eggs of such a bird except under the terms of a valid permit issued pursuant to federal regulations.”

In some ways, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act is a conservation success story. For example, it saved the snowy egret, whose white feathers were much prized, from the brink of extinction. At the same time, migratory birds face greater threats today than ever, according to Lyme resident Blake Allison, steering committee chairman of the Mascoma Chapter of New Hampshire Audubon.

Legislation now in Congress would eliminate penalties for companies that kill birds through inadvertent means, such as oil spills, and would prosecute only purposeful takes.

In an email Q&A, Allison explained why the MBTA should be preserved as originally written and talked about some of the changes he’s observed in Upper Valley bird populations over the years. The exchange has been edited for length, style and clarity.

Question: In addition to protecting some species from extinction, what were some of the law’s other positive effects?

Answer: The saving of egret species was one benefit, but others were aided as well, such as the wood duck. The MBTA helped spur bird conservation, not only through protections restricting hunting, but also through the preservation of habitat and the establishment of wildlife refuges.

Q: How has the environment become more problematic for birds in the past century?

A: Warming climate and rising sea levels pose significant threats. Sea rise is flooding coastal areas, damaging or altogether eliminating critical breeding habit for scores of wading bird and waterfowl species. Here in New England, we’re seeing how the warming climate threatens mountain-dwelling species like the Bicknell’s thrush. The thrush’s habitat is high-elevation fir forest that occupies mountaintops. Research by the Vermont Center for Ecostudies shows that warmer temperatures are causing the fir forest to retreat upward, shrinking the amount of habitat available to the Bicknell’s.

Q: Now the MBTA is under threat from new legislation in Congress. Can you explain?

A: A memorandum issued last December by the U.S. Dept. of the Interior held that businesses that cause the “accidental taking” of nongame migratory birds during the course of their commercial operations cannot be prosecuted under the provisions of the MBTA. This means that a business maintaining an open oil waste pit cannot be held accountable for the deaths of birds that accidentally land in it. Research indicates that as many as a million birds may be lost annually to oil pit-related mortality.

Q: What are some of the changes you’ve noticed in Upper Valley bird populations or behavioral patterns over the last decade or two?

A: One big change is the increased number of species from southern locales that have begun establishing themselves in our region. This includes, among others, the northern cardinal, the red-bellied woodpecker, the northern mockingbird and tufted titmouse.

The increased number of feeders put up during the winter may be supporting the influx, but milder winters are playing a role, too, by enabling these more southerly acclimated species to overwinter. Some of my birding colleagues and I have an informal pool regarding who will report the first Carolina chickadee. Given the trend, it seems like only a matter of time.

Another significant change is the sharp decline in the populations of some species. For example, grassland birds such bobolinks (down 50 percent), the eastern meadowlark (down 90 percent) and grasshopper sparrows (down 75 percent) have decreased precipitously over the last 50 years, according to the most recent North American Breeding Bird Survey. Loss of habitat as abandoned farm fields return to forest, as well as intensified agricultural practices, are thought to be the leading cause of these declines.

Upcoming BirdwatchingOpportunities

“Warbler Wednesdays” Bird Walks
in Lebanon

Wednesdays, May 9-30, 7-9:30 a.m.

Boston Lot Lake, Route 10

A weekly early-morning series of searches for warblers and other spring migrants at Boston Lot Lake. Meet in the more northerly of the two parking lots on Route 10, across from Wilder Dam. The walk will be led by Blake Allison. Walking conditions at the outset include a fairly steep uphill climb and surfaces that are unpaved and uneven. Once at the lake, the surfaces are level and grassy. All experience levels are welcome. Bring binoculars and/or spotting scopes, as preferred. Free. mascomabirds@gmail.com or 603-795-4167.

“Feathered Fridays” Bird Walk in Hanover

Fridays, May 11-25, 7-9:30 a.m.

Mink Brook Nature Preserve, Route 10.

Mink Brook Nature Preserve is known to many people in the Upper Valley birding community as a must-visit locale during spring migration. In addition to waterfowl on the brook and out on the river, the woods host a variety of songbird species, such as migrating warblers.

The walk is led by Mascoma chapter of New Hampshire Audubon steering committee chair Blake Allison and members of the Hanover Conservancy. The trailhead is accessed from a parking lot about a half mile south of the Hanover business district on Route 10 just before it crosses Mink Brook. Approaching from the south, the lot will be on the left just after crossing the brook, adjacent to a fenced-in electric transfer station. The trail is a level, unpaved route that parallels Mink Brook as it flows its final half-mile out to the Connecticut River. All experience levels are welcome. Bring binoculars and/or spotting scopes, as preferred. Free. mascomabirds@yahoo.com or 603-795-4167.

Bird Walk in Post Mills

Saturday, May 12, 7-9 a.m.

Crossroad Farm Stand, 671 W. Fairlee Road.

Bring binoculars on this stroll along the Ompompanoosuc River through floodplain forest and adjacent agricultural fields – about a mile round trip on level (though sometimes uneven) ground. The walk will be led by George Clark and Kathy Thompson. Insect repellent and waterproof footwear are essential. Refreshments follow. Sponsored by the Thetford Conservation Commission. Rain date is May 13. Free. 802-785-2729.

International Migratory Bird Day Outing in Hanover

Saturday, May 12, 7-9:30 a.m.

Balch Hill Natural Area, parking area at Trescott and Grasse roads.

Celebrate International Migratory Bird Day with some bird watching at Hanover’s Balch Hill Natural Area. The group will be seeking out spring migrants, especially warblers. Participants should meet in the parking area at the corner of Trescott and Grasse roads. All experience levels are welcome. Bring binoculars and/or a spotting scope, as preferred. Access to the summit is via a trail network system involving easy-to-moderate climbing on unpaved surfaces. Learn more about Balch Hill at http://www.hanoverconservancy.org/lands/balch-hill/. Free. mascomabirds@gmail.com or 603-795-4167.

Birding Workshop in Woodstock

Saturday, May 19, 8 a.m.-noon.

Forest Center, Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park, 54 Elm St.

National Park Service ecologist Kyle Jones and Vermont Center for Ecostudies conservation biologist Kent McFarland present a program about Vermont’s spring birds. Participants will learn bird identification by sight and sound on an easy two-hour walk through the park, then return to the Forest Center to learn the basics of eBird, a citizen science tool used to record birding observations. Appropriate for both beginning and experienced birders. Dress appropriately for outdoor activity, and bring a water bottle, snack and binoculars if possible. Co-sponsored by Vermont Coverts and the Vermont Woodlands Association.Pre-registration required: visit https://www.nps.gov/mabi/learn/nature/working-woodlands-workshops.htm, call 802-457-3368 x222 or email kyle_jones@nps.gov. Free.

Bedell Bridge Bird Walk in Haverhill

Saturday, May 26, 6:30-9 a.m.

Bedell Bridge State Historic Site, 880 Meadow Lane.

This visit to the former site of the Bedell covered bridge, lost in a September 1979 hurricane, offers an opportunity to see a wide variety of birds, due to the park’s combination of riparian, mixed woodlands and agricultural land habitats. The walk will be led by Mascoma chapter of N.H. Audubon steering committee members Jeff MacQueen and George Clark. Walking conditions are level, but may be damp. Meet at the Norwich end of the Ledyard Bridge to form carpools. Free. 603-795-4167.

Northern Rail Trail Bird Walk
in Lebanon

Saturday, June 9, 8-10 a.m.

Northern Rail Trail parking area, Riverside Drive.

Led by Mascoma chapter steering committee member Jeff MacQueen, the group will proceed a short distance along the Northern Rail Trail before crossing over the Mascoma River on the Packard Hill covered bridge to explore the Baker’s Crossing conservation area. Walk is on mostly level ground. Bring binoculars and bug spray, particularly with tick prevention in mind. Free. 603-795-4167.

Editor’s note: For more information about the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, visit http://www.audubon.org/news/the-migratory-bird-treaty-act-explained. For more information about the Mascoma Chapter of NH Audubon, visit http://www.mascomabirds.org/home.