Steve Mirsky: Welcome to Scientific American’s Science Talk posted on June 18th, 2015. I’m Steve Mirsky. On this episode—
Eduardo Inigio-Elias: For five years when I was there opening the mist nets every spring migration we capture the same wood thrush in the same net in the same lower position.
Mirsky: That’s ornithologist Eduardo Inigo-Elias. He’s a senior research associate with the conservation science program at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. He runs various programs related to the conservation of primarily migratory birds from the U.S. and Canada that go to Latin America where they winter and breed. This is the 100th anniversary of the Cornell Lab or Ornithology this year so in April I and my appropriately named Scientific American colleagues Robin Lloyd traveled up to Ithaca to talk to a few of the scientists at the lab.
You’ll be hearing more of those conversations over the next few months. First though Eduardo Inigo-Elias will talk to us about the challenges of studying migratory birds and the potential beneficial effects in his field of the thawing of the U.S. relationship with Cuba. You’ll hear Robin toward the end of the discussion. Migratory birds really present a real conservation challenge because they don’t respect national boundaries.
Mirsky: They are—they’re flying. They might hit 15 countries in the course of their normal lives. So you have to do so much coordination with all of these local places.
Inigio-Elias: And I mean some of those places as you just touched the issue of not respecting boundaries I just want to give you an example. For the last 12 years the lab of ornithology had been involved in research and conservation and training, building of capacity with biologists and scientists from Cuba. So you can imagine the amount of work that we have on the back from our lawyers from Cornell University to get the permits to work through the treasury department and the state department here in the U.S. But also been a lot of paperwork to do the things that we want to do collaborated with Cuban scientists. And our Cuban scientists have to deal also with their restrictions that they have.
But we have been able to work together because there’s over 350 species of birds that exist in the island of Cuba. And Cuba everybody thinks that is just one island but Cuba is an archipelago of around 3,000 islands, keys, rocks and the main island of Cuba and the second main island. The island of youth or the island of pines which are very important for migratory birds. So those 350, around 174 species are migratory birds, birds that we share populations with them. Populations are declining. Populations of birds that we once shared are maybe still there. We don’t know. As the ivory bill woodpecker for example. Other issues are with cranes.
Another issue is short birds and waterfalls are very important, wetlands in Cuba that they have been protecting and this is one of the things that very little we know for in this part because the barriers between the two countries. But also the language barrier between English and Spanish. But they have been protecting for the last 50 years huge portions of the country in a network of the national system of protected areas. They have been following all of the U.N. conventions such as the __ convention for wetlands, the convention for biodiversity. And we have been able to partner with them and do these collaborations for conservation on the ground. For example with our colleagues from the Chicago Field Museum, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology with support from the McArthur Foundation we have been able to implement for almost 10 years management plans that we developed in joint expeditions with Cuban scientists and the people from protected areas.
Primarily looking for where are the wintering grounds for some of the species but also looking for some of them that become very unique species in Cuba such as the Fernandina Flicker, the smallest bird in the world, the bee hummingbird, and other species just to mention. And those models of land protection that we did those assessments, those reports which are available in English and in Spanish on the website of the Chicago Field Museum have been the key instrument that now Cuba has been using to elaborate all of their management plans for other protected areas. So we did only 10 but they have for every single of the 75 protected, 76 protected areas of land that is under some conservation restrictions.
Mirsky: So the thawing of the U.S./Cuban relationship is a really big deal for you and your colleagues.
Inigio-Elias: I think so. I think you will see that in the future there’s going to be more important strengths of what activities we do. And I know many other institutions like the Smithsonian have been very interested to collaborate with Cuba because it’s always one of the gaps that we have on information of—I don’t know if you follow the big news. The article that just came out in the news on the blackpoll warbler who migrates to one flight straight to the Atlantic and makes all the way to South America. But sometimes they stop and the place they stop is Eastern Cuba.
And I just recall one day in the year 2009 when I was there around the end of February, beginning of—I mean the end of March, beginning of April and I was there with Debbie Winkler, a professor from Cornell and we were both teaching a workshop on ornithology. And we opened that morning the nets and suddenly we’re just going to teach the students the feathers and the molting patterns because they’re so important and for surprise when we put the net one of those birds went into our net. And it’s like eastern Cuba is so important for migratory birds.
And there’s a famous book that came out here in the U.S. called Soaring with Fidel which I think is published by a professor from Harvard University on English writing. But he dedicated his book to the history of the osprey. And all of the people are from the U.S. as well as from Cuba who have been committed and dedicated to the conservation and understanding the migration of the osprey. And it shows that almost 90 percent of the population of osprey is from New England as well from the east part of Canada migrate or winter in Cuba. So it’s very important.
Mirsky: Yeah. When these birds are making these long distance migrations, especially over water, if there’s some green land down there that can be a hugely important spot for those.
Inigio-Elias: Exactly. And there are many conservation challenges on the ground because sometimes that’s part of a huge wetland could be a fish farm and then there’s conflict with human because they will be taking part of the food that we need. So there are some issues for conservation but I think they have been very well managed. And there are many challenges ahead and I think many opportunities for continuation of the collaboration between the two groups of scientists.
Mirsky: We heard that you’re not here all that much because you’re in the field.
Mirsky: So what is it—in a typical year for you where might you go?
Mirsky: What will you be doing?
Inigio-Elias: For example I’m, I spent a lot of the time also with students from both Cornell as well as students from other universities and research centers across Latin America. And when we were working in Cuba we were spending a lot of time there in Cuba teaching and training these students for their master’s, for the PhDs, conducting jointly research or expeditions. And I was coordinating bringing many of my colleagues from Cornell Lab or Ornithology as well Cornell University and other institutions such as the Chicago Field Museum.
But sometimes I’ve been doing expeditions with colleagues here to understand the ecology of some of the species and islands is one of the areas that I have been very interested to understand, the life history of birds both marine and terrestrial in islands. I don’t like much to be in the ocean. I get a little bit sea motion sickness but I have survived in long trips for five days or four days trying to reach one island such as the __ Archipelago Islands in Mexico or the Guadalupe Islands where we have a species that we share such as the Laysan albatross who has populations in midway and Hawaii and a huge population of around 1,000 breeding birds in the Guadalupe Island.
And with colleagues from other countries, in this case it has been Mexico, the country where I was born and raised. We have been working with some of the scientists there to understand how to reintroduce or how to restore populations of many of these island birds and sea birds primarily because many of these islands for centuries were wiped out by all of the introduced species such as rabbits, sheeps, cats. And our colleagues from the island conservation ecology group of HESI from Mexico they have been doing a lot of efforts and collaboration with many people from the U.S., an eradication of many of these invasive species in the islands and restore. So that’s one of the most rewarding projects that we have right now. In fact I was just working and that’s why you see all of these books and messes because I’m travelling on Sunday to a conference with all of the __ agencies from the U.S., Canada and Mexico from NOA Fish and Wildlife service to a conference called the trilateral wildlife meetings which is an area where we share our expertise, an area where we share opportunities for collaboration with challenges.
And one of the big things that we have now is conservation of birds that are spending part of their life cycle or all the life cycle of their life in islands in the three countries or in the water of the three countries. So we’re talking about like islands of Vancouver or all of the archipelagos from varying to Baja, California but also all the Gulf of Mexico and in the case of Mexico part of the Caribbean coast but also of all of the waters in Atlantic from Canada and the U.S. and what we are trying to understand is what are the species that we are responsible for conservation? What are the most endangered? What are the actions already on the ground? And where do we have gaps to better improve the conservation of some of these species.
And not only include the pelagic and marine birds but coastal birds. We include also the land birds that are stopping in those islands. Many of these islands are key in the migration of many of the species that are jumping from point to point. So that’s probably the typical thing that I do, field work but also meetings and preparing data bases.
Mirsky: I noticed there’s a book on your desk called The Dawn of Conservation Diplomacy which gives you an idea of the kind of things we’ve been talking about.
Mirsky: You have to do this kind of thing where you’re not just a research scientist. You’re also a diplomat.
Inigio-Elias: You need to be—there are many challenges. Especially you learn this with migratory birds that there is a natural resource shared by everybody and there are many issues that affect. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico happened. Everybody was calling here and ringing. “Who are the people you know in Cuba that can help us to understand if the water changed in that direction and the oil starts going to the shore what are going to be the impacts especially now that the migratory birds are moving?” And it’s like ok. It’s going to be difficult because even then they have restrictions on how to move not because they are not allowed. It’s just simply they don’t have the money to move around. It’s just very expensive the gasoline in Cuba.
Mirsky: As somebody who really studies migratory birds just what one thing maybe just pops to the top of your head that still after all of these years just amazes you about the physical achievement of some of these creatures?
Inigio-Elias: Well as was put in the paper last week somebody that is around 10—15 grams.
Mirsky: That’s about half an ounce, a warbler.
Inigio-Elias: Can jump with all of the energy that it’s storing in fat and make the decision ok, now I’m in condition. The weather is perfect to jump and let’s keep going to South America.
Mirsky: So a journey of how many thousands of miles.
Inigio-Elias: Depends on where they go because some of them go all the way to the, nonstop to the north part of the Orinoco and some part of the Amazon in Brazil. But some of them continue their migration and stop in Columbia in the Andes and then from there continue south. And some other birds like the famous ruby throated hummingbird they also jump once they go to Cape Cod or sorry, to Cape Maine in New Jersey and then they jump and they arrive in the Yucatan Peninsula so there are many different flights especially for the small passerines and tiny birds. That’s the thing that just amazes me every day.
Mirsky: Right. This is—you’re talking they make a nonstop flight. They might make a quick stop once they reach a certain place and then hop somewhere else but a nonstop flight of many thousands of miles without any food. They just keep going.
Inigio-Elias: Keep going.
Mirsky: And use up whatever stores they have to make this trip.
Inigio-Elias: And there are challenges in the environment because when we have weather conditions that change suddenly they have to drop. They have to go on the ground and those stop over sites are so important for conservation. I remember when I was a student back in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s I was with two colleagues, Dr. John ______ who already retired from the Smithsonian and Dr. Mario Ramos who already passed away and we were putting mist nests, nettings in the cloud forest of _____ Mountains in the state of Mexico in _____.
And for five years when I was there opening the mist nets every spring migration we captured the same wood thrush in the same net in the same lower position of the net. So it was in the lower right side of the net that always came through that place every year, every spring. It was not like it was a silly bird. It was so showing us that for me that that site is so important and is so unique to have these places where they stop.
Mirsky: This bird was banded so you knew it was exactly the same individual.
Inigio-Elias: The same individual and he was lucky that he survived five years at least when I was there. This bird—not even prior when I was taken by many other colleagues but it’s just really important to see those things.
Mirsky: This map that shows the migration routes, if you’re ever on an airplane and there’s the airplane magazine, the airline magazine and at the back it shows the different routes. You’ll see a map of North and South America that shows all of the different routes and so this is—it looks very much like that except most of those airline routes are east/west and a few are north/south. This is almost exclusively north/south.
Inigio-Elias: Yeah. But also one thing that is not showing in the map that is happening in the continent is also the trail migrations. Birds are moving from the south into Argentina or from the south from Argentina into the Caribbean and breed. But also we also have another very important migration that is happening for example in the high peaks on the Andes which is the altitudinal migration for many of the birds that breed and are endemic and are unique to the highlands of those mountains. They move up and down depending on the wet and dry seasons looking for resources.
And that’s very important. It also happens here in the U.S. especially in Arizona with some of the species that has a multitudinal migration as well. So those are very complex. I don’t know if you will have a chance to go and see or eBird the amazing data because that shows you an illustration of what we saw back in the ‘70s. There was a migration. But today you will see with the citizen science efforts, my colleagues’ work and the eBird team. They have been putting all of these mathematic models to show you how the birds move and it’s amazing.
Robin Lloyd: Can you just talk a little bit more about the fish farm situation? I hadn’t really thought about that with the proliferation of fish farms and it sounds like those exist also in Cuba. There’s an impact on nesting sites and stop over sites. Is that right?
Inigio-Elias: Well it is not necessarily a fish farm for sea farming. It’s in fresh water so it’s for tilapia and other kinds of fish. And in some of the places in eastern Cuba they have been trying to get a better source of protein because part of the U.S. embargo has been restricting the importations of proteins for the people or the farming for any other animals. And they have been looking on alternatives such as the tilapia farming and other fishes, carps.
And they have been finding very few occasions where ospreys go into the farm and perch in the wires or perch in the top of a telephone and predate. But there’s no hard data to show yet what is the impact in these locations. But I think if we look into the data of impacts from birds to farming we have many examples. We’ve heard good data here in North America with ospreys but also with cormorants that go into the fish farming and they can have severe impact. So they have to use some nets on top of the farm to avoid the birds to jumping.
Mirsky: Right. It’s a smorgasbord with these fish catching birds.
Inigio-Elias: It’s unbelievable.
Mirsky: You heard Eduardo Inigo-Elias refer to eBird. That’s the Cornell Lab of Ornithology online data base by which bird watchers anywhere on the planet can upload their sightings and help increase the resolution of our information on exactly what birds are hanging out where and when. They’re welcoming all input even if it’s just another starling. That’s it for this episode. Get your science news at our Web site www.scientificamerican.com where you can also check out our collection of eBooks, the latest in the series just released is title Exoplanets: Worlds Without End. Look for the book section in the menu on the Scientific American home page. And follow us on Twitter where you’ll get a tweet whenever a new item hits the Web site. Twitter name is @sciam. For Scientific American Science Talk, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.