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Rainwater Basin Shorebird Research Appears in Scientific Journal

May 23, 2008

     News about a little-known shorebird that frequents south-central Nebraska is featured in the most recent issue of an internationally-recognized ornithological journal.

     Buff-breasted sandpipers -- classified as a "highly imperiled" species by the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan in 2004 -- are the subject of a study reported in this year's first issue of Condor, the journal of the Cooper Ornithological Society. The study documents the importance of the Rainwater Basin region to these long-distance migrants, which stop in Nebraska on their way from wintering areas in southern South America to breeding grounds in northernmost Alaska and Canada.

     The buff-breasted sandpiper, or "buffie," is a two-ounce bird that, like most types of shorebirds, has long, delicate-looking legs and a slender bill. Its back and upper wings are patterned dark- and light-brown, and its underside, as the name suggests, is buff-colored fading to white.

     The article notes that the eastern Rainwater Basin is the only area of Nebraska where the birds are seen regularly, and that sightings are rare elsewhere in the Great Plains. While here, buffies typically are found in agricultural fields, unlike many other shorebird species, which more often occupy the shallow and drying areas around wetland edges.

     In the study, researchers estimated the number and density of buff-breasted sandpipers stopping over in the region, based on surveys conducted from county roads during May of 2004 and 2005. The results equaled or even exceeded the 15,000 to 20,000 currently estimated as the entire global population, suggesting that more birds exist than previously thought. However, the article cites research indicating a continued population decline in recent decades. The conclusion emphasizes the importance of the Rainwater Basin region to the survival of the species.

     Publication in the Condor is significant, says the article's lead author Joel Jorgensen, Nongame Bird Program Manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, because it is one of the most esteemed ornithology journals in North America, read by scientists and professional ornithologists. "Estimates have been rigorously reviewed," he says, and their publication provides "credibility that these numbers of birds are moving through the Rainwater Basin." Co-authors of the report are John P. McCarty and L. LaReesa Wolfenbarger, both University of Nebraska at Omaha biology professors.

     It is partly on the strength of the buff-breasted sandpiper research that the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture is requesting that the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN) designate the Rainwater Basin region a Landscape of Hemispheric Importance for shorebirds. The region also hosts more than 30 other species of migrating shorebirds, numbering in the hundreds of thousands each year. Jorgensen describes WHSRN as "a non-governmental, non-regulatory entity that identifies key shorebird sites and promotes shorebird conservation throughout the Americas."

     The eastern Rainwater Basin region includes Clay, Fillmore, York, Hamilton, Butler, and Polk counties, and portions of Adams, Nuckolls, Thayer, Saline, and Seward counties.