Putting Bird Habitat First : Ten highlights from ABC's work across the Western Hemisphere in 2023
Cats, pesticides, power lines, windows, plastics: The list of threats birds face across the Americas is long and daunting. American Bird Conservancy (ABC) works to address all of these and more, and the one at the top of our list is applicable to every species, from the rarest to the most abundant: loss of healthy habitats. After all, no bird species will survive for long without a viable place to nest, hunt or forage, and find shelter. In this article, we present 10 habitats around the Western Hemisphere that have been improved in 2023 thanks to the efforts of ABC staffers and partners. And of course, we also feature several birds that have benefited from our work.
U.S. Pine & Bottomland Forests
Conservationists would be hard-pressed to find a better ambassador bird for the pine and bottomland forests of the southeastern United States than the Swallow-tailed Kite. The black-and-white raptor with a deeply forked tail and a 4-foot wingspan is undeniably striking.
“They are relatively easy to identify, they nest and forage on Southeast working forests, and they have an amazing migratory story where they migrate thousands of miles back to their wintering grounds in South America every late summer,” said EJ Williams, Vice President of ABC's Southeast and Atlantic Coast Region.
Since 2020, the kite has benefited from a partnership between ABC and International Paper (IP), the world's largest pulp and paper company, in several southern states. The goal is to integrate bird conservation into IP's operations and supply chain to support progress toward the company's commitment to sustaining forests and toward reversing the decline of forest birds.
A further partnership with the Avian Research and Conservation Institute, ABC, IP, and several other groups has been tracking Swallow-tails via GPS transmitters for several years. This year, five new kites received transmitters. One of them, which was captured in Georgia, led the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to a pre-migration roost on the state's Altamaha River of over 600 Swallow-tails — the first of its kind outside of Florida. Such roosts are important staging areas for the birds to successfully migrate across the Gulf of Mexico and onward to Brazil for the winter. “The kite data will help us maintain this important landscape feature,” Williams said.
Chile's Atacama Desert
The Atacama Desert in northern Chile is among the driest places in the world.
“The setting is absolutely alien,” said Sea McKeon, ABC's Marine Program Director. “The soils are caustic. It's essentially a barren place. And for that reason, because of that barrenness, it's a safe place for these birds to breed.” The birds in question are the Near Threatened Markham's Storm-Petrel and the Endangered Peruvian Tern. As their names indicate, both species are seabirds, and yet they make their nests away from the coast in harsh desert locations.
Since 2016, ABC has worked with Chilean conservation group Red de Observadores de Aves y Vida Silvestre de Chile (ROC) on locating breeding areas for both species near the port city of Arica, on the country's northern coast. In the last few years, ROC staffers have found breeding sites for the birds in northern Chile, and this year, they documented the first known nesting site in Peru for the storm-petrel. A systematic search found a colony of about 30 pairs in Pampa Pie de Candela, in the department of Tacna, which borders Chile. ABC's work with ROC has been supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and Lynn and Stuart White.
The Chilean sites are in the process of being protected by the national government. A 1,600-acre site known as Pampa Chaca hosts about 1,500 Markham's Storm-Petrel nests, which the birds build in burrows below ground. And a 539-acre site called Chacalluta hosts a colony of the terns. Together, they are the first properties entrusted by Chile to ROC with a focus on bird conservation.
“We went from essentially nothing to effective conservation in a very short period of time,” said McKeon. “We remain committed to both the birds and to ROC, which is a growing organization that we want to see succeed.”
High-Altitude Andean Forests
The Critically Endangered Royal Cinclodes is a dark brown songbird found only in high Andean forests of Peru and Bolivia. It numbers fewer than 250 individuals, and its population is declining. The bird relies mostly on trees in the genus Polylepis. Polylepis are shrub-like evergreens with reddish bark that occur at elevations up to 16,400 feet, making them the highest-growing flowering trees in the world.
In winter 2022-2023, ABC coordinated with our partner Asociación Ecosistemas Andinos (ECOAN) the planting of 45,000 Polylepis trees to help the cinclodes and other birds. The trees were planted within Peru's Vilcanota mountain range at altitudes between 11,800 and 15,000 feet. The winter before, the team planted 62,150 Polylepis trees for a two-year total of more than 107,000.
The work, supported by New England Biolabs, enhances the vegetative cover that the birds rely on. Over time, Polylepis trees capture moisture and provide shade that lichens, mosses, and other plants rely on. Cinclodes forage on the ground for insects within this dense vegetation.
ABC has directly supported ECOAN and local Indigenous communities in the Vilcanota mountains since 2002. The work has led to the planting of more than 1.6 million trees and shrubs to restore woodlands and promote fuel-efficient stoves, which reduces demand for firewood. Furthermore, the local communities have fenced several areas to exclude livestock and facilitate natural forest regeneration and established nine nationally recognized protected areas covering more than 21,000 acres. ABC and ECOAN are currently working with the community of Quelcanca to create a new 13,000-acre reserve in the Vilcanota network in the coming years.
This mix of tropical savannas and gallery forests once covered more than 737,000 square miles in central Brazil. Today, most of it has been lost to agriculture, cattle pastures, and charcoal production. Still, protected areas exist, and this year, ABC and Re:wild provided support for the purchase of a 358-acre reserve named Lago do Campo.
It's now the fourth property in the Cantão Cerrado Ecological Corridor, a protected area network owned and managed by ABC partner Instituto Araguaia where the Amazon meets the cerrado. In a 2022 survey, 269 bird species were detected at the new reserve, including four pairs of the Vulnerable Kaempfer's Woodpecker, a species that was rediscovered in 2006, and the Vulnerable Sharp-tailed Tyrant. After acquiring the reserve, Instituto Araguaia immediately began building patrol trails and firebreaks to protect it from poachers and wildfire, two main threats in the region. Upon exploring the reserve in depth, they noticed lakes blocked by dense scrub.
“When we finally reached (the lakes), we found them surrounded by a wonderful belt of old-growth igapó flooded forest, with twisting ancient trees and a clear understory,” said George Georgiadis, Executive Director of Instituto Araguaia. “In one of the lakes we found a strip of newly dug sand — a Giant Otter den, where a family was bringing up four cubs, hidden away from the motorboats and fish poachers in the nearby river. Hoatzins in abundance, Sunbitterns, and other Amazon birds fluttered all around the lake. Most amazingly, a Kaempfer's Woodpecker flew right by us in the forest understory. This further confirmed that this species can use flooded forest to disperse and move between suitable habitats, which means that the populations of all four of our reserves are connected.”
Andean Montane Forests
South America's Andes mountain range and its various forests are among the most biodiverse places in the world. The region is home to more than 1,700 bird species, as well as hundreds of mammal, reptile, and fish species and thousands of plants and insects. ABC works with partner organizations in several places throughout these montane forests to conserve important habitats for birds.
This year, we supported Fundación Ecohabitats as it signed separate conservation agreements with four local communities in the western Andes of Colombia in the buffer area of the Key Biodiversity Area Serranía del Pinche. This will protect 7,711 acres of habitat for the Critically Endangered Gorgeted Puffleg, a hummingbird species endemic to the region. The puffleg, discovered in 2005, is only 3.1 to 3.5 inches long, and it numbers fewer than 1,000 individuals.
In central Colombia, just east of the capital Bogotá, ABC and our partner Fundación Camaná purchased four properties totaling 446 acres to create a new reserve to protect the Endangered Cundinamarca Antpitta. The endemic bird numbers only 300 to 800 individuals. The Bezos Earth Fund and BirdLife International have supported ABC's work on behalf of the puffleg and antpitta.
And earlier this year in Peru, ABC, Rainforest Trust, and Bobolink Foundation helped ECOAN to purchase three properties, totaling about 43 acres. These lands protect habitat for the Endangered Gray-bellied Comet hummingbird. We are continuing to work with ECOAN to purchase additional land and restore habitat by planting thousands of native plants grown at a local nursery.
North American Wetlands
ABC works with many partners on wetland conservation and filling in knowledge gaps for species of concern in a variety of marshes, swamps, lakes, and other waterways around North America. One such site is Fern Ridge Wildlife Area on Fern Ridge Reservoir near Eugene, Oregon.
For the last two years, Lindsay Adrean, ABC's Northwest Program Officer, has participated in a study of Black Terns that is, in part, attempting to connect the dots between where the birds breed and winter. The Volgenau Foundation supports Adrean's work with the terns. Another goal of the study is to try to learn what is causing the ongoing decline in the tern's population.
“We know that at least some of them spend time in Central America — places like Panama — but we don't really know what their route is to get there or how long they're spending in other places before they get there,” said Adrean. ABC is one of many partner organizations that are tracking terns by placing light-level geolocators on their backs. A graduate student at the University of Saskatchewan is leading the project, which is partially supported by the Smithsonian's Migratory Connectivity Project.
The tern colony at Fern Ridge is fairly small — 20-30 nests each year. Adrean was able to place one geolocator on a tern in 2022 (which she has since retrieved) and five on birds this year. It's too soon to know what will be learned, but Adrean thinks the information from the Fern Ridge terns could “help inform management at Black Tern colonies in other areas of Oregon and Washington that are suffering effects from our drought.” Stay tuned.
Latin American Farms & Ranches
Farms and ranches can either be of little use to birds, or if they're managed sustainably, they can offer habitat for resident and migratory birds. Thanks to ABC and its partners, more and more farmers and ranchers in Latin America and the Caribbean are adopting bird-friendly management practices for working landscapes.
The expertise ABC has been offering to producers for more than a decade is now being scaled through its new BirdsPlus program, which was launched earlier this year with the support of the Jeniam Foundation and Knobloch Family Foundation. The program helps growers of cacao, coffee, and cardamom, as well as cattle ranchers, to adopt sustainable practices that benefit birds while maintaining or increasing producers' yields and incomes.
In the first six months of this year, farmers and ranchers in Colombia, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, and Venezuela planted more than 47,500 native and fruit trees provided by ABC and partners on their lands. The trees were planted around coffee and other crops, which will create more habitat for birds.
Andrés Anchondo, ABC's Associate Director of Impact Investment in Latin America and the Caribbean, recently visited a cattle rancher in Honduras and encouraged him to set up “living fences” rather than traditional fences of barbed wire strung between posts. A “living fence” is simply a row of trees with barbed wire between them. The trees provide habitat for birds and shade for the cattle. The result? “His cows are producing more milk thanks to the cooler conditions provided by the trees, and the trees are providing shelter and corridors for birds and other wildlife,” said Anchondo.
This ecosystem of humid alpine grasses and shrubs is found from elevations of about 10,000 feet to 16,000 feet in the northern Andes Mountains. Thousands of endemic plants that are adapted to these cold regions, as well as rare birds, mammals, and reptiles, exist in the páramo. One extraordinary resident is the Blue-throated Hillstar, a hummingbird that was discovered in 2017 in southern Ecuador's Loja province and described to science in 2018. With an estimated population of 250-750 individuals, the species is classified as Critically Endangered.
Soon after the bird's discovery, ABC and Ecuadorian partner Fundación Jocotoco began to raise funds to buy habitat around Cerro de Arcos, where most of the population is found. Major supporters of the work include Patricia Davidson and Mark Greenfield and the Greenfield-Hartline Habitat Conservation Fund. The Cerro de Arcos Reserve was created in 2020, and after additions of 165 acres this year, it now covers 1,332 acres. The partners anticipate adding at least 300 more acres by mid-2026 and aim to continue restoring patches of Chuquiragua, a low-growing evergreen shrub with spiky leaves and small pine-cone-like orange flowers that hillstars feed on.
Threats to the bird include habitat loss and degradation, mostly due to the conversion of páramo to cattle pastures, fires set for grassland regrowth, and pine plantations.
About 150 bird species have been tallied at Cerro de Arcos, and Fundación Jocotoco invites birders to visit. Learn more at jocotoco.org.ec.
Ecuador's Chocó Forest
The Andean foothills of northwestern Ecuador are the home of the Chocó bioregion, an area with 63 endemic bird species and about 3 percent of the world's plant species. Over the decades, deforestation has left only about 2-5 percent of the original forests intact. That's why protected areas like the Río Canandé Reserve are so important.
The Canandé Reserve was created in 2000 to protect part of the lowland Chocó Forest, the second most biodiverse and one of the five most threatened biodiversity hotspots on Earth. The Greenfield-Hartline Habitat Conservation Fund and Patricia Davidson have generously supported the forest's protection over the years. The reserve currently comprises 20,974 acres (68 of which were added in 2023) and protects populations of 14 globally threatened bird species including the Banded Ground-Cuckoo, Great Green Macaw, and Purple Quail-Dove (all species that are Endangered or Critically Endangered with global populations sizes of less than 5,000 individuals). Plus, many neotropical migratory birds, such as the Canada Warbler, Acadian Flycatcher, and Scarlet Tanager, spend part of the year at Río Canandé.
A recent scientific expedition to the reserve has identified several potential new species of mammals, orchid-bees, plants, a frog, and a spider. Camera traps have revealed the presence of many mammal species, including Jaguar, Puma, Ocelot, Margay, Peccary, Red Brocket Deer, and three monkey species. With around 400 bird species, the reserve is a popular destination for birders, who can stay in the Chocó Lodge. Visit jocotoco.org.ec to learn more.
Brazil's Atlantic Forest
An astounding 223 bird species are endemic to the Atlantic Forest of eastern Brazil and Paraguay and northeastern Argentina. One of the rarest is the Cherry-throated Tanager, named for its striking red throat. Described to science in 1870, the species was reported once in 1941 and not again until 1998, when it was rediscovered on a private tract of forest in the Brazilian state of Espírito Santo.
Today the tanager numbers only about 20 known individuals. Brazilian conservation organization Instituto Marcos Daniel (IMD) established the Kaetés Reserve in 2021 in partnership with ABC, Rainforest Trust, World Land Trust, and the Robert W. Wilson Charitable Trust. Recent land purchases have expanded the reserve from 700 to 1,500 acres. In addition to protecting the tanager's home, the reserve also provides habitat for the Endangered Vinaceous-breasted Amazon and several Vulnerable species: the White-bearded Antshrike and Golden-tailed and Brown-backed Parrotlets.
Bennett Hennessey, ABC's Brazil Program Coordinator, assists IMD with the process of purchasing land and training reserve staff. “If we can save this tanager, which
was unseen for many years but is now regularly spotted, then we can save other imperiled species whose appearances have become less frequent,” he said. “We aim to replicate this success across the Americas.”