2013 in review: The 42 most important stories about birds and birdwatchers

12/30/2013 | 4

Barred Owl in Nanaimo, British Columbia, by Steve Large..

Barred Owl in Nanaimo, British Columbia, by Steve Large..

A new Big Year record was set. A new Big Day record was set. High honors were bestowed on two of our heroes, and we bade good-bye to four of our best friends. Razorbills and Snowy Owls moved south. Blue-footed Boobies moved north. A wood-rail caused a sensation in New Mexico. A kingfisher drew crowds in Texas. And biologists in the Pacific Northwest started hunting Barred Owls to save Spotted Owls. Yes, indeed, 2013 was quite the year.

We reported most of the year’s 42 most important stories, as they happened, here on our website and via our social-media outlets, and we’ll do the same in 2014. To stay in the know in the year to come, check back daily, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

January

1. Thousands of Razorbills invade Florida. The seabirds normally spend the winter in the cold North Atlantic waters between Maine and New Jersey, but this winter, many show up, emaciated and starving, in the Gulf of Mexico. December-January

2. The Young Birders Network is launched. The network, a creation of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, encourages new birdwatchers and helps them connect and learn, and it provides resources to adults who want to support those just starting out. January 11

3. A Red-flanked Bluetail, an Old World flycatcher, is discovered in New Westminster, British Columbia, on January 13. Another Asian vagrant, Citrine Wagtail, had been discovered at Comox, on Vancouver Island, on November 14. Neither species had been recorded in Canada before.

February

Baby Wisdom, February 24, 2013, photo by John Klavitter/USFWS.

Baby Wisdom, February 24, 2013, photo by John Klavitter/USFWS.

4. Wisdom, Midway Atoll’s famous Laysan Albatross, hatches a chick for the sixth consecutive year. A survivor of the March 2011 tsunami that swept across the refuge, killing at least 2,000 adult and subadult Laysan Albatrosses and tens of thousands of albatross chicks, Wisdom is at least 62 years old. February 4

5. Renowned New York birder Starr Saphir dies. She led walks in Central Park four times a week for nearly four decades and was one of the main characters in the 2012 HBO documentary Birders: The Central Park Effect (trailer). February 9

6. Birdwatchers from all seven of the world’s continents, including 111 countries and independent territories, report 4,004 species from about 180 bird families during the Great Backyard Bird Count. The count is the largest ever. February 15-18

7. In an online poll aimed at identifying the 10 most-wanted birds in the United States and Canada, readers of BirdWatching magazine say California Condor is the bird they want to see most. Whooping Crane, Elf Owl, Gyrfalcon, Atlantic Puffin, Spotted Owl, Kirtland’s Warbler, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Green Jay, and Blue-footed Booby are the other most-wanted species. We announced the 10 most-wanted in our August issue.

A California Condor flies over the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge (USFWS).

A California Condor flies over the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge (USFWS).

March

8. For the first time in over 40 years, the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler is found on tiny San Salvador Island, in the Bahamas. Researchers captured or sighted at least 10 of the birds on the island between January and March in 2012 and from December 2012 to March 2013. We reported the discovery in our February 2014 issue.

Monk Parakeets in Boynton Beach, Florida, by Maureen Leong-Kee. Wikimedia Commons.

Monk Parakeets in Boynton Beach, Florida, by Maureen Leong-Kee. Wikimedia Commons.

9. A new estimate of mortality at wind farms in 2012 is the highest ever. According to analyst K. Shawn Smallwood, turbines across the United States killed 573,000 birds, including 83,000 raptors. The number of bats killed was even higher: 888,000. Worse, because thousands of additional megawatts of capacity were planned or under construction in 2012, Smallwood speculates that the annual toll on birds and bats is sure to increase.

10. The popular Monk Parakeets of Hyde Park, Chicago, celebrate their 40th anniversary.

April

11. For the second time, an oil additive discharged by a rogue ship at sea kills thousands of seabirds, which then wash up on beaches from Cornwall to Dorset in England. As many as 4,000 birds of 18 species are killed. The discharge of the chemical at sea was later banned.

12. A Big Day team from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology finds 294 bird species in 24 hours in Texas. The spectacular total smashes the team’s own record of 264, set in 2011. April 25

13. In hopes of restoring populations of honey bees, vital to crop production, to healthy levels, the European Union bans three pesticides known as neonicotinoids. The pesticides are extremely lethal to birds. The prohibition will be enacted in December. April 29

May

14. For the first time ever, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authorizes the incidental take of endangered California Condors, saying it will prosecute neither the operators of a wind farm in the Tehachapi Mountains nor the developers of a hotel and golf-course project north of Los Angeles for inadvertently harassing or killing the birds. May 10

15. Ornithologist William Mueller completes a 25-day, 246-mile walk across Wisconsin to raise funds for bird conservation. He records 158 species of birds and raises over $10,000. Look for an article about Mueller’s long walk in our April 2014 issue. May 23

16. BirdWatching magazine launches its new website. May 28

June

Kirtland's Warbler by Joel Trick.

Kirtland’s Warbler by Joel Trick.

17. For the first time, a Kirtland’s Warbler that hatched and was banded in Adams County, in central Wisconsin, returns to its birthplace. The endangered warbler was found almost exclusively in the northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan until 1995 but has since expanded its breeding territory to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Ontario, and Wisconsin. June 3

18. Betty Petersen, who built Birders’ Exchange into one of the American Birding Association’s most effective and beloved programs, dies. Birders’ Exchange collects donated new and used birding equipment and distributes it to people working to conserve birds and their habitats throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. June 4

19. Biologists, researchers, and volunteers observe 2,004 singing male Kirtland’s Warblers in Michigan. The total is fewer than the year before but still near an all-time high. Twenty-one additional singing males are observed outside Michigan: 18 in Wisconsin, 3 in Ontario. Early June

July

Night Parrot by Martin Thompson, Wikimedia Commons.

Night Parrot by Martin Thompson, Wikimedia Commons.

20. Australia’s super-rare Night Parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis) is reportedly photographed in Queensland, providing the first evidence of the ground-dwelling bird’s existence in over 100 years. July 4.

21. A Rufous-necked Wood-Rail is recorded on video at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, near San Antonio, New Mexico. There are no previous records of the species in the ABA Area. CBS This Morning called the bird’s appearance “the event of a lifetime” for American birdwatchers. July 7

August

22. Researchers from Ventana Wildlife Society, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Santa Barbara Zoo, Los Angeles Zoo, and the Bodega Bay Institute reveal that DDT dumped in 1971 is still harming California Condors today. The birds are laying eggs with thinner-than-normal shells, most likely because they’ve eaten sea lion carcasses containing high concentrations of DDT compounds.

Contributing Editor Kenn Kaufman.

Contributing Editor Kenn Kaufman.

23. The American Ornithologists’ Union, in the 54th supplement to its Check-List of North American Birds, splits Sage Sparrow into two species: Sagebrush Sparrow (Artemisiospiza nevadensis) and Bell’s Sparrow (A. belli).

24. Contributing Editor Kenn Kaufman — naturalist, artist, conservationist, speaker, and author of many books, including the Kaufman Field Guide series and the beloved memoir Kingbird Highway — is elected a Fellow of the American Ornithologists’ Union. August 15

September

25. A study by researchers from Environment Canada determines that cats are the most lethal human-related threat to birds in Canada. The findings echo earlier research, published in January, about cats and birds in the United States (PDF).

26. Fifty years passes since the last observation of an Eskimo Curlew. Under Canada’s endangered-species protocols, the elapse of 50 years since the last confirmed sighting of any animal is a key criterion for formally declaring it extinct. September 4

27. About 7,500 songbirds are killed after flying into a flare at the Canaport gas plant in Saint John, New Brunswick. The stricken birds include vireos, warblers, thrushes, grosbeaks, and other insect-eaters that spend the summer in New Brunswick and fly to Mexico and Central and South America for the winter.

Blue-footed Booby near Anacapa Island, California, October 12, 2013, by Alexander Viduetsky.

Blue-footed Booby near Anacapa Island, California, October 12, 2013, by Alexander Viduetsky.

28. Blue-footed Booby, one of our readers’ 10 most-wanted birds but a species rarely seen north of the Gulf of California in Mexico, invades California and the Southwest. Ornithologists speculate that the visitors, most of them juveniles, may have been driven north in search of prey fish. September-December

29. Decades after concerned shorebird watchers first asked the federal government to protect the rufa subspecies of Red Knot, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposes listing the bird as threatened. Populations in some areas have declined by about 75 percent since the 1980s. September 27

Canvasbacks painted by Adam Grimm of Burbank, S.D., winner of the 2013 Federal Duck Stamp Contest. All rights reserved by USFWS Headquarters.

Canvasbacks painted by Adam Grimm of Burbank, S.D., winner of the 2013 Federal Duck Stamp Contest. All rights reserved by USFWS Headquarters.

30. Adam Grimm, an Ohio native who lives in Burbank, South Dakota, wins the 2013 Federal Duck Stamp Art Contest. His oil painting of a pair of Canvasbacks will be made into the 2014-15 Federal Duck Stamp, which will go on sale in late June 2014. September 28

October

31. California becomes the first state to ban the use of lead ammunition in hunting. Lead poisoning caused by ammunition is the main cause of death and illness in the endangered California Condor, the subject of a decades-long federal reintroduction effort and one of our readers’ 10 most-wanted birds. The birds consume the metal when they eat felled game and gut piles left behind by hunters. October 11

32. Russell Greenberg, the founder of International Migratory Bird Day, an advocate of bird-friendly coffee, and the director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, dies on October 24. The American Ornithologists’ Union awarded him its prestigious Elliott Coues Award on August 17.

November

Wisconsin ornithologist Noel J. Cutright.

Wisconsin ornithologist Noel J. Cutright.

33. An Amazon Kingfisher is discovered near San Benito in Cameron County, Texas, delighting attendees at the annual Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. This is the second ABA Area record of the species. November 9

34. Beloved Wisconsin ornithologist Noel Cutright dies. Cutright served twice as president of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, he was a co-author and senior editor of the ambitious first Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas, and he was a leader in establishing the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative. November 10

35. Contributing editor Pete Dunne, author of our regular column “Birder at Large,” announces that he will step down as head of New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory next year. He suffered a stroke in March. Dunne will become a “birdwatching ambassador.” November 19

Contributing Editor Pete Dunne, photo by Linda Dunne.

Contributing Editor Pete Dunne, photo by Linda Dunne.

36. Snowy Owls invade the Great Lakes, the Northeast, and Atlantic coast, beginning November 20. BirdWatching contributing editor Kenn Kaufman describes the invasion as “epic.”

37. For the first time, the U.S. Department of Justice prosecutes a wind company for killing birds. Duke Energy will pay fines of $1 million for causing the deaths of 14 Golden Eagles and 149 other protected birds at its Campbell Hill and Top of the World projects in Wyoming between 2009 and 2013. November 22

38. The number of bird species listed as Critically Endangered reaches an all-time high. Almost 200 species of bird are now in real danger of being lost forever, says BirdLife International, publisher of the authoritative Red List.

December

39. The U.S. Department of the Interior finalizes a rule granting wind-energy companies 30-year permits to kill Bald and Golden Eagles. The rule provides legal protection for the lifespan of wind farms and other projects if companies obtain permits and make efforts to avoid killing protected birds. December 6

40. In recognition of 40 years of visionary leadership in international conservation, George Archibald, co-founder of the International Crane Foundation, is awarded Canada’s second highest honor for merit: the Order of Canada. December 13

Neil Hayward, courtesy of Accidental Big Year 2013.

Neil Hayward, courtesy of Accidental Big Year 2013.

41. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that specially trained biologists have shot 26 Barred Owls in a study area on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation northeast of Arcata, California. The shooting was part of an experiment, announced in September, aimed at determining if the removal of Barred Owls would benefit the endangered Northern Spotted Owl. The shooting of Barred Owls was also approved by the government of British Columbia at the beginning of the year.

42. On December 28, British ex-pat birder Neil Hayward records his 749th species of the year (a Great Skua spotted off the coast of North Carolina). His total — 746 ABA birds and 3 species that have yet to be accepted by state record committees — surpasses the Big Year record held since 1998 by Sandy Komito (745+3). Hayward’s year was certainly big, but it was hardly green. He drove more than 51,000 miles, flew over 193,000 miles, and spent more than 140 motorboat hours at sea pursuing his record.

Tell us: Which story was most important to you? Did we overlook an important event? Please leave a comment. – Chuck Hagner, Editor

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  • jimlevine

    #14 should also say that in exchange for allowing some possible future take, there are now 142,000 acres of privately owned wilderness in Southern California that will never be developed. (kind of an important thing to overlook)

  • Jeff Reiter

    This is a great list! The only thing I’d add is the launch of “A
    Birder’s Guide to Everything” New York’s Tribeca Film
    Festival. It won great reviews and will soon be more widely available. I can’t wait to see it myself!

  • Paul J. Baicich

    Here’s what I think was a crucial 2013 event that you missed:

    The American Bird Conservancy, Tucson Audubon Society, and Victor Emanuel Nature Tours announce (15 October) that their effort to save the “Paton’s Birder Haven” – a prime hummingbird location in southeast Arizona – achieved its funding goal. The needed $300,000 was collected voluntarily though the contributions of hundreds of birders. This is an appropriate tribute to the late Wally and Marion Paton’s legendary generosity and a proud funding effort by birders across North America.
    I think this ranks as “a first”: North American birders – as birders – engaging in a fund-raising effort to save a significant birding area.
    You can even view a listing of the campaign contributors here:

    http://www.abcbirds.org/paton/donors.html

    – Paul

  • Ken Damro

    #9 My guess is this will eventually become a major issue for birds and bats in the future – and is completely avoidable. The average person doesn’t have a clue.