Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A New Research Approach For Bicknell’s Thrush

A new effort to protect the rare Bicknell’s Thrush by an alliance of North American scientists and conservationists is taking the unusual step of funding a team of Dominican biologists to work in the migratory songbird’s Caribbean wintering habitat.

The Bicknell’s Thrush Habitat Protection Fund at the Adirondack Community Trust has awarded a $5,000 grant to Grupo Jaragua, whose biologists will study the thrush in forested mountains on the Dominican Republic’s border with Haiti. The grant recognizes a need to protect the songbird across its entire range, particularly in its threatened winter destinations.

“The Bicknell’s Thrush has two homes – one here in North America and the other in the Caribbean Basin,” Chris Rimmer, executive director of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, a research group working to conserve the thrush said in a statement to the press. “Our efforts to protect this vulnerable songbird can’t stop at the water’s edge. We need to concentrate our work where the threats are most severe and imminent.”

Brown, speckled, and reclusive, Bicknell’s Thrush is one of North America’s rarest nesting songbirds. Each spring it makes a 1,200-mile journey north from only four Caribbean islands to breed in restricted high mountain and coastal forest sites in the northeastern United States and Canada. In early fall, the thrush begins a demanding return trip to the Caribbean region.

The songbird’s small population and fragmented distribution may compound its ability to withstand cumulative threats from charcoal production and unsustainable agriculture and forestry practices in the Caribbean, as well as climate change, mercury contamination and habitat loss in North America. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering listing Bicknell’s Thrush as a federally endangered species.

Grupo Jaragua, a non-profit conservation group based in the Dominican Republic, is expected to use the grant to search for Bicknell’s Thrushes, map their habitat, and assess conservation threats in the southern Sierra de Bahoruco, a crucial wintering area for the songbird. Results from the work, which is planned to include volunteers from communities in and around the thrush’s habitat, will inform conservation efforts of dwindling forests in this region on the Haitian border.

During the past two decades, biologists have focused most of their research on Bicknell’s Thrush breeding grounds in the United States and Canada. The grant to Grupo Jaragua embraces a “full life-cycle” approach to conservation, a strategy researchers use for other migratory wildlife, such as Monarch butterflies and Atlantic salmon.

Sixto Inchaustegui, a senior scientist with Grupo Jaragua, said in a statement to the press that the grant would allow his team to establish an essential local presence in a forest under heavy pressure from illegal agricultural expansion and charcoal production. “By better understanding Bicknell’s Thrush and its conservation needs,” he said, “Jaragua and our partners will more effectively tackle pressing issues that threaten all biodiversity in this sensitive region.”

With a world population estimated at 100,000 or fewer individuals, which is low for a songbird and troubling to researchers, Bicknell’s Thrush has a corps of scientists and conservation organizations working on its behalf:

The Bicknell’s Thrush Habitat Protection Fund is a joint project of the Adirondack Council, Adirondack Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, Audubon New York, Vermont Center for Ecostudies, and the Wildlife Conservation Society. The Adirondack Community Trust (ACT) administers the fund and accepts donations online.

The International Bicknell’s Thrush Conservation Group (IBTCG) is an alliance of scientists, natural resource managers, and conservation planners advancing the study and conservation of Bicknell’s Thrush through science and international cooperation. In 2007, IBTCG issued a conservation plan for the songbird that recognizes the need to work across its entire range. The report is available online.

Photo courtesy International Bicknell’s Thrush Conservation Group.

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