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    Wednesday, May 22, 2024

    Losses outweigh gains in state's bird populations, Audubon report finds

    This May 2012 photo provided by Saltmarsh Habitat and Avian Research Program shows saltmarsh sparrows in their coastal habitat. Scientists say the population of the birds, which live in coastal areas from Maine to Virginia, is declining. (Kate Ruskin/Saltmarsh Habitat and Avian Research Program via AP)

    While saltmarsh sparrows are headed for extinction, blue herons and several species of ducks are doing well.

    Populations of indigo buntings and prairie warblers are rebounding after years of decline, but Eastern meadowlarks, grasshopper sparrows and other birds will need sustained efforts to preserve the grassland habitats they depend on.

    Those are some of the findings of the 2016 Connecticut State of the Birds report released Monday by the Connecticut Audubon Society. Now in its 10th year, the report gives an overview of successes and challenges in bird conservation in the state over the last decade, and makes recommendations for actions that should be taken.

    “Although a handful of bird species have done surprisingly well, a review of the last decade shows that many Connecticut birds are suffering slow, steady population declines caused by the loss of their specialized nesting area,” the society said in a news release.

    In his introduction to the report, Milan Bull, senior director of science and conservation for the society, called the prediction about the salt marsh sparrow’s extinction in 50 years “shocking.”

    Other tidal marsh birds, including the clapper rail and the seaside sparrow, are also in severe decline because of rising sea levels that are flooding coastal marshes, and with it, nesting areas for these birds, according to Chris Elphick, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut. He is the author of the section of the report on the impact of sea level rise on marsh species. He said that statewide, there are about 1,600 saltmarsh sparrows, a population that has been declining about 9 percent annually over the last 10 years.

    “Saltmarsh sparrows are on a clear trajectory towards extinction within the next 50 years,” he wrote.

    The news is more hopeful for the state’s shrubland species, thanks to an unlikely ally. Robert Askins, Connecticut College biology professor, found in his report that efforts to conserve and expand habitat for the New England cottontail rabbit, which had been considered for Endangered Species Status, are benefitting birds that use the same areas. That means indigo buntings, prairie warblers and other species such as blue-winged warblers and chestnut-sided warblers could see future gains.

    In coastal areas, American oystercatchers and piping plovers have benefitted from conservation efforts, the report found, and wetland birds such as marsh wrens, great blue herons and wood ducks are doing well. Black ducks, however — once the state’s most abundant waterfowl species — are in decline, the report found.

    In grasslands, a statewide initiative has added about 800 acres of this once-dominant landscape over the last decade, but management, maintenance and development pressure remain significant challenges. Grasslands support 80 species of birds, including northern harriers, Eastern meadowlarks, grasshopper sparrows and bobolinks, all of which are in decline due to habitat loss, the report found.

    “Overall…losses outweigh gains,” the news release said. “Among the birds that have been hardest hit are the species that can nest only in specialized habitats such as large grasslands, shrubby areas and young woods, beaches or tidal wetlands.”

    Recommendations made in the report include that Connecticut should:

    • Institute policies to slow sea level rise and reduce global warming

    • Provide the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection with sufficient funding to provide for inland migration of tidal marshes as sea levels rise.

    • Develop partnerships of state, land trusts, private landowners and local land use officials to foster preservation of a “mosaic” of habitat types, including “shrub-scrub habitat.”

    • Encourage DEEP, Connecticut Audubon, Audubon Connecticut and the Connecticut Ornithological Association to work together to plan and obtain funding for the state’s first breeding bird inventory and data collection.

    • Foster collaboration of nonprofit and state agencies to create “new and novel funding mechanisms” for conservation efforts.

    • Increase the state’s land acquisition efforts to meet the state’s goal of protecting 21 percent of state land by 2023 and 10 percent for state parks, forests and wildlife management areas.

    j.benson@theday.com

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