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Year in review 2016: The 50 most important stories about birds and birders

Year in review 2016: Tricolored Heron at Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Delray Beach Florida.
Year in review 2016: Tricolored Heron at Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Delray Beach Florida, July 16, 2015, by Marilynne Strazzeri. View photo.

w_101x82hat a year 2016 was! Bald Eagles made history. A Spix’s Macaw was sighted in the wild. Birding in Cuba became significantly easier. And participants in the Great Backyard Bird Count and Global Big Day set records, while a Dutch birder broke Noah Strycker’s world Big Year mark. Our annual year in review follows — our list of the year’s 50 most important stories about birds and birdwatchers.

We reported our 50 stories, and many more, as they happened throughout 2016, here on our website and via our social-media outlets, and we’ll do the same in the year ahead. To stay up to date, check back daily, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


1. Bird of the year: The American Birding Association announced that Chestnut-collared Longspur, a beleaguered resident of the short-grass prairies in the middle of the continent, would be its 2016 Bird of the Year. Surveys suggest that nesting populations have declined as much as 87 percent since the 1960s. January 5

See photos of Chestnut-collared Longspur.

2. Farewell: Martha’s Vineyard birder Vernon Laux, 60, died from complications related to esophageal cancer. Laux led birding expeditions, both internationally and on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, he penned columns for local newspapers, and he was a popular source of birding news on the radio. In our February 2005 issue, he described his discovery of a Red-footed Falcon in Martha’s Vineyard in August 2004. The species had never been recorded in the Western Hemisphere before. January 21

3. Ultralights grounded: Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that they would end migrations of Whooping Cranes led by ultralight aircraft. The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership used the technique for 15 years in an attempt to build a self-sustaining flock in the eastern U.S. Nearly 100 cranes are in the Eastern Migratory Population today, but of more than 240 birds released into the population, only 10 chicks survived to fledge. January 22


4. Wisdom’s chick: Wisdom, the famous Laysan Albatross that researchers first tagged in 1956, hatched what could be her 40th chick. The youngster was given the name Kūkini, the Hawaiian word for messenger. The chick was first seen coming out of its shell on February 1. Wisdom would return to Midway Atoll to breed once again in December. (See below.) February 9

5. Flights to Cuba: The United States and Cuba signed an agreement restoring commercial air traffic for the first time in five decades. JetBlue Flight 386, the historic first regular flight to Cuba, would land safely in Santa Clara at the end of August. February 16

Year in review 2016: Atlantic Puffin on Skomer.
Atlantic Puffin on Skomer, an island off the coast of Pembrokeshire, Wales, by Doug Walsh.

6. Puffins in winter: National Audubon researchers announced that they had mapped the Atlantic Puffin’s winter grounds for the first time. Geolocators attached to birds in the Gulf of Maine revealed that they first traveled northward, to the western Gulf of St. Lawrence, but then moved southward to the U.S. Continental Shelf, well offshore of New York and New Jersey. The areas most frequented are about 200 miles southeast of Cape Cod. February 16

7. British milestone: The British Ornithologists’ Union and the British Birds Rarity Committee confirmed that the 600th species had been added to the British List, a major milestone. The species, a seabird known as Yelkouan Shearwater, was spotted off Berry Head, Devon, on July 29, 2008. February 18

8. Record-setting count: The organizers of the 19th annual Great Backyard Bird Count announced that participants had submitted more checklists (162,052) and recorded more species (5,689) than ever before. More than half of the world’s species were reported. A total of 18,637,974 individual birds were counted. February 19


9. Bernie’s finch: A female House Finch perched briefly on a lectern being used by presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at a political rally in Portland, Oregon, making headlines. March 25

10. Flyway champions: Teams of birders raised more than $70,000, a record, in the Champions of the Flyway race, held in Eilat, Israel, on March 29. The Hellenic Ornithological Society will use the funds to help stop the illegal killing and trapping of birds in Greece. The Zeiss Arctic Redpolls won the event, after observing 174 species. The IBRCE Flying Dutchmen came in second (171 species), and the youngest team, the Next Generation Birders, placed third (164 species). March 30


11. Kirtland’s Warbler recovery: The last annual Kirtland’s Warbler census indicated that the world population of the still-endangered warbler totals 2,366 breeding pairs. According to an Interior Department official, a recommendation to remove the warbler from the endangered species list could come as early as next year. April 1

Year in review 2016: Whooping Cranes forage at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas.
Whooping Cranes forage at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas, by mayhaga.

12. Cranes set record: Aerial surveys conducted over the winter near Aransas NWR, in Texas, yielded 329 Whooping Cranes, including 38 juveniles. “This is the highest survey estimate ever documented for this population of Whooping Cranes,” stated the species recovery coordinator. Surveys conducted last year estimated 308 cranes. April 19

13. Farewell: Beloved ornithologist Edward H. “Jed” Burtt Jr. died on April 27. Burtt was a past president of the Wilson Ornithological Society and American Ornithologists’ Union, a recipient of the prestigious Margaret Morse Nice Medal, and a co-author of the book Alexander Wilson: The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology (Belknap Press, 2013).

14. Hall of fame: Dr. Noel J. Cutright, past president of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, co-author and senior editor of the first Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas, and founder of the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory, was inducted into the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame, in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. April 30

The Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory.


15. Breakthrough: Captive-bred Florida Grasshopper Sparrow chicks hatched for the first time ever, making conservation history. The nonmigratory subspecies is found only in the dry prairies of south-central Florida and has been listed as endangered since 1986. Fewer than 150 sparrows are thought to survive. May 9

16. Global Big Day: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology announced that more than 17,300 birders around the world submitted over 47,000 checklists on Global Big Day. A total of 6,333 species were reported, more than last year’s total of 6,158. May 17

17. One in three species: According to The State of North America’s Birds 2016, a tri-national study of the state of migratory birds, more than a third of all North American species need urgent conservation action. The study was the first comprehensive assessment of the conservation status of all species that occur in Canada, the continental United States, and Mexico. May 18


Year in review 2016: Arctic Tern in Glacier Bay, Alaska.
Arctic Tern in Glacier Bay, Alaska, by wahoowoman.

18. Tagged blackbird recovered: A researcher with International Rusty Blackbird Working Group announced that a high-tech GPS tag had been recovered from a Rusty Blackbird for the first time. The blackbird had carried the tag for almost a whole year and migrated thousands of miles. The species has shown chronic long-term and acute short-term population declines. June 6

19. The longest migration: An Arctic Tern fitted with a geolocator in 2015 completed the longest annual migration known to science, flying from islands off the coast of Northumberland, the northernmost county in England, to Antarctica and back. According to scientists at Newcastle University, the journey covered 96,000 km (59,651 miles). June 7

See a gallery containing photos of 12 tern species.

20. Aplomado Falcon recovers: Biologists with the Peregrine Fund announced that 37 territorial pairs and 93 individual Aplomado Falcons were documented along the South Texas coast during the 2016 nesting season, some of the highest totals to date. The fund has been captive-breeding and releasing the endangered falcon at Laguna Atascosa NWR since 1985. June 23

21. Spix’s Macaw reappears: A 16-year-old birder spotted and filmed a critically endangered Spix’s Macaw near Curaçá, in Brazil. The vibrant blue parrot, the subject of an excellent 2004 book by Tony Juniper, had not been seen in the wild since 2000 and was thought to be extinct. The bird’s origin is uncertain. June 24


22. Checklist updated: The American Ornithologists’ Union released the 57th Supplement to its authoritative checklist of North American birds. The AOU split Western Scrub-Jay into California Scrub-Jay and Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay, reshuffled the 21 orders between Galliformes (chicken-like birds) and Trogoniformes (trogons), and made other changes. July 7

Year in review 2016: Kakapo on Codfish Island, New Zealand.
Kakapo on Codfish Island, New Zealand, December 23, 2005, by Mnolf (Wikimedia Commons).

23. Kakapo success: Conservationists in New Zealand announced that the critically endangered Kakapo, a flightless bird, had a record-breaking breeding season, producing 34 chicks. The world Kakapo population is now estimated to be 157 birds. July 14

24. Sparrows in decline: University of Connecticut researchers announced that Saltmarsh Sparrows have been declining at a rate of about nine percent a year since the late 1990s and will likely go extinct within the next 50 years. Sea-level rise and tidal restrictions at marshes are thought to be factors in the decline. July 20

25. Virus identified: Researchers announced that they had identified a virus linked to the disease responsible for grossly deformed beaks. The disease was first documented among Black-capped Chickadees in south-central Alaska during the 1990s and then spread into Canada and the Pacific Northwest. Bill deformities have also been reported throughout the lower forty-eight states. July 26

26. Pelicans push east: American White Pelicans were found nesting in Lake Erie for the first time. Several nests were discovered on Big Chicken Island, located about seven nautical miles west of Pelee Island, in western Lake Erie. The birds have been expanding their range throughout the last decade, nesting in Lake Superior, Lake Nipigon, and James Bay. July 28


Year in review 2016: "Of the First Magnitude," by Terry Rich, BirdWatching Magazine, August 2016.
“Of the First Magnitude,” by Terry Rich, BirdWatching Magazine, August 2016.

27. A century of protection: The landmark Migratory Bird Treaty, signed by the United States and Canada on August 16, 1916, turned 100 years old. The treaty became U.S. federal law in 1918 as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. August 16

How the Migratory Bird Treaty Act can finally become an effective tool for conserving birds.

28. Merger approved: At the North American Ornithological Conference, in Washington, D.C., the Fellows of the American Ornithologists’ Union formally approved the merger of their organization with the Cooper Ornithological Society. Members of the COS had voted overwhelmingly in favor of the merger earlier in August. By the end of the year, the two groups would legally form a new organization called the American Ornithological Society (AOS). August 17

29. Landbird conservation: Partners in Flight released its updated Landbird Conservation Plan on August 15. In it, the group announced that nearly 20 percent of U.S. and Canadian landbird species are on a path toward endangerment and extinction in the absence of conservation action. Partners in Flight is a network of more than 150 partnering organizations throughout the Western Hemisphere. August 23

30. Pacific marine monument expanded: President Obama more than quadrupled the size of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, off northwestern Hawaii. The monument was established by President George W. Bush in 2006. Obama extended most of its boundary out to the 200-mile limit of the exclusive economic zone, creating the largest protected area anywhere on Earth. August 23


Year in review 2016: Bald Eagle in British Columbia.
Bald Eagle in British Columbia by Tony Joyce.

31. Eagles make history: Two juvenile Bald Eagles were observed interacting with Staten Island’s adult eagles, leading observers to conclude that at least one juvenile hatched on Staten Island this summer. The eaglet is New York City’s first naturally reared Bald Eagle chick since at least 1914. September 1

32. Farewell: Ontario birder and researcher Alan Wormington died. He was a member of the Ontario Birds Records Committee and the record holder for bird species listed in the province. Wormington had spotted 445 of the 495 species in Ontario. September 3

33. Seabirds in Arizona: Hurricane Newton pushed Juan Fernandez Petrel, Wedge-tailed Shearwater, Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel, Least Storm-Petrel, and other Pacific seabirds into Arizona, delighting birders. Newton made landfall in Baja California Sur as a Category 1 storm, then moved northwest along the peninsula before turning eastward toward southeastern Arizona. September 8

34. Duck Stamp: An acrylic painting of three Canada Geese by artist James Hautman, of Chaska, Minnesota, won the 2016 Federal Duck Stamp Art Contest. The painting will be made into the 2017-18 Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, or Duck Stamp, which will go on sale in late June 2017. It was Hautman’s fifth Duck Stamp win. September 9

35. Atlantic marine monument created: President Obama declared the first fully protected area in the U.S. Atlantic Ocean, designating 4,913 square miles off the New England coastline as Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. The area is home to many species of deep-sea coral, sharks, sea turtles, seabirds, and deep-diving marine mammals, such as beaked whales and sperm whales. September 15

36. Good year for cranes: The U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator reported that the endangered crane had a good breeding year in Wood Buffalo National Park, in Canada. About 45 Whooping Cranes fledged. They were expected to arrive at Aransas NWR, in Texas, in early October. September 16

Year in review 2016: ʻIʻiwi on the Big Island of Hawaii.
ʻIʻiwi on the Big Island of Hawaii, January 2013, by Laure Wilson Neish.

37. Iconic honeycreeper threatened: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the ‘I’iwi, a bright red honeycreeper unique to Hawaii, as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The bird was once common in forests on Hawaiian islands, but avian malaria and habitat loss have caused its population to plummet. More than 40 bird species in the Pacific Islands are endangered or threatened. At least 32 bird species have gone extinct in Hawaii since 1778. September 19


38. Pinnacles’ first condor: For the first time in a century, a wild-hatched California Condor fledged from a nest in Pinnacles National Park, south of San Jose, California. The condor, a female, hatched in April. The previous year, for the first time in decades, the number of condors that hatched and fledged in the wild was greater than the number of adult wild condors that died. Conservationists had called the ratio a key milestone in the bird’s return to the wild. October 11

39. Spoon-billed population estimated: Scientists calculated the world population of the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper for the first time. Researchers estimate that the breeding population in 2014 was 210-228 pairs. The post-breeding population was 661-718 individuals. The results represent the most accurate estimate of the sandpiper’s population to date. October 19

40. Wildlife refuge created: A national wildlife refuge was created in New York and five New England states. The new Great Thicket NWR includes 15,000 acres of mostly shrubland teeming with 136 types of animals and insects. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it also preserves habitat for numerous declining priority breeding landbirds, including Prairie Warbler and Blue-winged Warbler. October 26

Year in review 2016: Gray Jay at Cypress Mountain, Vancouver, British Columbia, by Tony Joyce.
Gray Jay at Cypress Mountain, Vancouver, British Columbia, by Tony Joyce.

41. Huge marine park created: The world’s largest marine park was created in the Ross Sea, in the Southern Ocean. More than a million square kilometers of the sea — an area about the size of France and Spain combined — will be set aside as a no-take “general protection zone,” where no fishing will be allowed. Scientists consider the Ross Sea to be the last intact marine ecosystem on Earth. October 27

42. Hawaii added to ABA Area: Members of the American Birding Association voted overwhelmingly to approve adding Hawaii to the ABA Area. The area is covered by the ABA Checklist and is the basis for many of the lists kept by birders. October 28


43. Global Big Year record broken: The world Big Year mark set in 2015 by American Noah Strycker was broken by Dutch birder Arjan Dwarshuis. A Northern Jacana recorded in Costa Rica was Dwarshuis’s 6,119th species this year. “We’ll see how far I get,” he said. “But I think 7,000 is doable.” Strycker had brought his record-setting Big Year to a close on December 31, 2015, with a grand total of 6,042 species. November 10

44. Canada’s national bird: The Royal Canadian Geographical Society announced that Gray Jay had been selected over Common Loon, Snowy Owl, Black-capped Chickadee, and Canada Goose as Canada’s national bird. The federal government has not committed to naming a national bird. The society hopes the selection will be made official in time for Canada’s 150th birthday. November 16

45. Oil-spill evidence: Scientists identified the first evidence of Deepwater Horizon oil in a land animal — Seaside Sparrow. Researchers writing in Scientific Reports in September had concluded that the spill had caused widespread erosion in the salt marshes along the coasts of Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, permanently marring one of the Gulf shore’s most important ecosystems. November 22

46. Three record-breakers: Laura Keene became the third birder to pass Neil Hayward’s 2013 Big Year record of 749 species. According to the American Birding Association, Keene’s sighting of the Common Scoter in Oregon was her 750th. (She has also recorded two provisional species.) Birders John Weigel and Olaf Danielson had broken Hayward’s record in July. As of December 24, Weigel has recorded 776 species, Danielson 775 species. November 23


Year in review 2016: Wisdom, the world's oldest known banded bird in the wild, sits on an egg on Midway Atoll NWR.
Wisdom, the world’s oldest known banded bird in the wild, sits on an egg on Midway Atoll NWR. Photo by Pete Leary/USFWS.

47. Wisdom returns again: The Laysan Albatross known as Wisdom, the world’s oldest known banded wild bird, returned once again to Midway Atoll to breed. The albatross was sighted on December 3, 2016, incubating an egg. She is thought to be 66 years old. She has raised 30-40 chicks. December 3

48. Red List updated: More than 740 newly recognized bird species were added to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, including 13 species that were identified after they ceased to exist. The update also included dire warnings about the world’s most popular cage birds, including African Grey Parrot, which was up-listed from Vulnerable to Endangered. Nineteen Asian species were also moved to a higher threat category. Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) had voted in early October to prohibit international commercial trade of the African Grey Parrot. December 8

49. ‘Alala released: Five critically endangered ‘Alala, or Hawaiian Crows, were released into Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve on the Big Island. The species has been extinct in the wild since 2002, but 131 individuals were preserved at the Keauhou and Maui Bird Conservation Centers managed by San Diego Zoo Global. December 14

Make room, New Caledonian Crow! Hawaiian Crow uses tools, too!

50. Off limits: President Obama designated a large portion of the U.S. Chukchi Sea and the majority of the U.S. Beaufort Sea as permanently off-limits to drilling leases. The president also designated 31 Atlantic Ocean canyons off-limits to oil and gas exploration. Obama had earlier signed an executive order providing greater protections to the northern Bering Sea for at least five years. December 20

Year in review: The 50 most important stories about birds and birdwatching of 2015

Read our 2014 year in review

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This year in review was compiled by Chuck Hagner. Please leave a comment.


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