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etsky_flyer450By Hugh Powell

A documentary about songbird migration and illegal hunting in Europe is out in the iTunes store. Emptying the Skies—named for and inspired by a 2010 Jonathan Franzen article that exposed the scale of the problem—is a fascinating and at times harrowing look at the clash between cultural traditions and new environmental realities. (Find it on iTunes here.)

It’s also a thought-provoking exploration of the nature of activism. It centers on three Italian members of a European organization called the Committee Against Bird Slaughter, each with a different background. One is an articulate environmentalist; another a vegan animal-rights activist; the third a banker from Milan. But for each of them, something about the scale of hunting and the helplessness of the songbirds struggling in their traps compels them to move beyond political protests. They sneak onto private land (although they often alert the local police to their plans ahead of time), destroying traps and risking dangerous confrontations with the landowners.

Though the film is solidly on the side of the activists, it provides some balance by airing the side of the hunters and trappers. Some turn out to be elderly men and women cherishing a link to the past; others are loud and violent. The film suggests that others are linked to organized crime.

The story unfolds through interviews with the activists and other players, and it’s enlivened by beautiful cinematography filmed throughout a year across France, Italy, and Cyprus. Interspersed are many shots of birds caught and sometimes suffering in a variety of low-tech, often cruel snares. The footage is not always easy to watch, but the activists are ultimately uplifting in their attempt to balance direct action with nonviolence, and their conviction that things are getting better as a result.

We got an inside look at the film through a Q&A with the film’s directors, Doug and Roger Kass. Read on for their take on filming during sometimes-hostile field operations, what makes the activists tick, and whether the film is ultimately hopeful.

Cornell Lab: Where are you from, how did you find out about this issue—and what made you want to make this film?

Roger Kass: Born and raised in Bedford, New York, I have a background in law and movie production.  I first learned of the issues presented in Emptying the Skies by reading Jonathan Franzen’s story in the New Yorker magazine and wanted to make a film about it to bring these terrible truths to a larger audience.


The Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) is a commonly hunted species in the Mediterranean. This female safely returned to her northern breeding grounds in England. Photo by jefflack Wildlife & Nature via Birdshare.

The main characters in the movie are environmentalists and people who love animals, but they don’t seem like bird watchers exactly. What motivates them to take this interest in tiny songbirds? Follow-up question: they are all men. Why do you think there were no women?

Doug Kass: As is often the case, there were a lot of things we weren’t able to put into the final film. Most CABS members we met were very passionate bird watchers and had extensive lists of sightings, as well as favorite locations, and bucket lists. You could describe them as “extreme bird-watchers,” because unlike most birders, they come into physical contact with the birds.

As much violence as there is in the film against the birds, and the CABS members trying to save the birds, it’s only a sampling of what happens in the field. It’s extremely dangerous, and common that physical beatings take place. We chose to focus on three guys who have a very tight bond and rely on each other in very stressful situations, but there are also many women who go on missions with CABS. They are brave and skillful and very resolute. In some locations women are a special asset to the team because poachers have no problem attacking men, but when it comes to women, they don’t know how to proceed. That too though, is not always the case. It’s also worth mentioning that there are volunteers from all over the world who feel this work is important enough to join in the effort. Obviously we could not represent everyone.

One of the brave women who we filmed but ultimately were not able to put into the edit was the mother of one of our principal subjects– Andrea. Mothers around the world will go to extremes to be with their children. In this case, we filmed Andrea’s mother on a mission in Cyprus, the most dangerous of all locations. Since Andrea is almost always out in the field, she felt like this would be one of the only ways to spend time with him. She was fearless.

The movie focuses on an organization called CABS that takes direct action to destroy bird traps, and trespasses on private property in order to do it. A second organization, BirdLife Cyprus, seems more interested in a non-confrontational, political solution. Which of these approaches do you feel will be more successful in the long run? 

Doug Kass: While the two organizations do have their differences, they do a lot of work together. Their final goal is very much a common one. As with many environmental issues, it’s going to take the work of a lot of people, and a lot of approaches. I think both organizations are important and valuable to the cause. One thing to bear in mind about CABS though, is that they also do more conventional political work; lobbying, and passing on information behind the scenes. At the same time, they feel that by taking the risks there’s a chance that people will take notice, and of course they’re right.

The activists risk being threatened or attacked by hunters, and the film recounts a couple of altercations that came to blows. Was the camera crew ever attacked, and how did you feel about the risks you were taking?

Roger Kass: During our first trip to film in Cyprus, the cameraman/director and I were filming the activists dismantling illegal traps when we were chased by a band of poachers for over an hour.  They were in trucks and we were on foot and it was very scary as they closed in on us, violently cursing and threatening us. The police arrived in time to prevent bloodshed on that occasion but it was very close and we were very shaken. The CABS activists we followed were not always so lucky, however, and have been violently attacked in Cyprus and elsewhere repeatedly. It’s really a wonder none of them have been killed yet, since they’ve been shot at, stoned, clubbed, and beaten up so many times. I have to say that I was a bit naive about the potential to be harmed when we first began the film and once I fully realized how dangerous the undertaking was, I questioned the wisdom and sanity of it all many times, yet still pressed ahead. At a certain point you just give yourself over to self-belief and fate.

In making a film about the natural world, was it a difficult decision to show so many scenes of birds suffering or dying in traps? How did you balance this in the movie, and do you feel in the end that the movie is hopeful or mournful?

Doug Kass: It was definitely hard to see the animals suffering. Through CABS’ archive and our own filming, there were many more images than we could use, which is sad, but I think the film strikes a good balance.

The ending, I like to think, offers some hope. I also would like to think that it inspires others in some way or another. If it does that, then of course there’s hope.

You can watch the Emptying the Skies trailer here:

You can find it in the iTunes store here.

SPECIAL NOTE FOR NEW YORK CITY: Thanks to a donor, free tickets are available to the film’s opening run in New York City this week. Claim your two free tickets while supplies last.

More Cornell Lab movie reviews:

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Artwork by Luke Seitz. Click the image to download a copy for your computer.

This year, the Cornell Lab’s birding team is doing something they’ve never done before in their 30-year history of Big Days—they’re inviting you to be part of the team.

Every spring since 1985, Team Sapsucker has spent 24 hours trying to see as many species as possible in a single day. The venue has shifted over the years, from a long stint at New Jersey’s World Series of Birding, to a world-record-shattering route in Texas, to last year’s new route across southern Arizona and California.

This year, they’re headed to Panama for a Big Day on May 9, 2015. But to make this Big Day truly global, they’re asking for your help as well. The goal is twofold:

  • Record 4,000 species in a single day. The global reach of our eBird project means it’s now possible for anyone to add their bird sightings to our centralized database—now the biggest single source of bird biodiversity in the world. Birders are already preparing for Global Big Day in North, Central, and South America, Europe, Africa, Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere to help us with the biggest single-day tally of species ever—you can help with the count, too.
  • Raise $500,000 for conservation. Big Day is the Cornell Lab’s biggest conservation fundraiser of the year. Your support helps us pursue our mission to interpret and conserve the earth’s biological diversity. It allows us to develop tools like eBird that are accessible to everyone and provide crucial data to scientists. By providing these tools for people to join the cause around the world, we’re empowering conservation in ways that we could never imagine alone. Please donate to Global Big Day.

On this year’s Big Day, the Sapsuckers will explore central Panama, where lush tropical forests still provide a refuge for hundreds of species. They harbor the the world’s most powerful raptor and Panama’s national source of pride—the Harpy Eagle—as well as providing winter habitat for dozens of migrant birds such as warblers, Wood Thrushes, tanagers, and orioles. Most of the migrants will be gone by May 9—which is why we need help from birders in North America to get them on the final list. And the only way to even get close to 4,000 is to get people from all around the world to go birding that day, too. We hope you will.

Celebrate Global Big Day with beautiful art for your desktop. To celebrate this event, we asked Luke Seitz, a talented birder, artist, and Cornell undergraduate to paint a one-of-a-kind world map. The outlines of the continents are given shape by a riot of birds representing just a small fraction of the incredible diversity of birds on the planet. It’s sized perfectly for your computer desktop—the art is free to download here.

More about Global Big Day

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A Common Gallinule nests on a model goose in a pond. Photo by Patrick Izzo/CUBs.

By Pat Leonard

Spring is nesting season, and some birds have a flair for the funky when it comes to finding the right real estate to lay their eggs and raise their chicks. The annual Funky Nests in Funky Places contest hosted by the Celebrate Urban Birds project at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is underway. Look for another entertaining collection of nests in old boots, barbecue grills, motorcycle helmets, traffic signals, rakes, old tires and who-knows-what.

Participants may send in a photo, video, story, poem, or even some form of dance or artwork. Entries may be submitted in categories such as “cutest,” “funniest,” “funkiest,” or “most inconvenient.” Celebrate Urban Birds is offering a free downloadable flyer showing some of the places you can look for funky nests in urban locations.

“Even in urban areas, we’re a lot closer to birds than you might think,” says project leader Karen Purcell. “This contest is a lot of fun but it’s also about really being aware of what’s around you and taking the time to appreciate birds and all of nature.”


Using spider web to affix its nest to a single bulb in a strand of holiday lights, this tiny Anna’s Hummingbird successfully hatched two chicks. Photo by Kathy West/CUBs.

The deadline for entries is June 15.

Participants should read the guidelines for approaching nests to be sure the birds are not disturbed in any way.

Contest prizes include a mini-iPad, binoculars, Pennington bird feeders, Inside Birding DVDs, Diversity of Animal Sounds CDs, beautiful posters, field guides, and more.

To learn more about how to participate, plus terms and conditions, visit Funky Nests in Funky Places. Looking for inspiration? Check out this Funky Nest slideshow.

Looking for inspiration?  Get your juices flowing by browsing through the winners from 2014 and 2013.

Celebrate Urban Birds is a free, year-round citizen-science project focused on birds in neighborhood settings.

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A Red-necked Grebe on a small lake in Maryland, March 2014. Photo by JMC Nature Photos via Birdshare.

By Gustave Axelson and Marshall Iliff

For the past six weeks, the Cornell Lab’s eBird team has been buzzing about the potential this spring for inland fallouts of Red-necked Grebes around the Appalachians region. That happened during the frigid winter of 2014. And in early 2015, as thermometers seemed stuck in the single digits, it looked like all was set for a repeat.

Fallouts are the stuff of birding legend—a phenomenon where bad weather forces masses of migrating warblers, orioles, and tanagers to land for cover all at once. They’re typically seen along the Gulf Coast. In spring 2014, fallouts of a different kind occurred throughout the Northeast, when eBirders reported Red-necked Grebes scattered on inland small ponds and rivers—far away from their usual big-water haunts on the Great Lakes and Eastern Seaboard at that time of year.

Looking back at what caused this inland grebe fallout, the eBird team noticed that the 2014 Great Backyard Bird Count, in February, had tallied unusually high counts of Red-necked Grebes on inland bodies of water, from New England to North Carolina and Ohio to Tennessee. In a normal winter, the majority of Red-necked Grebes overwinter along the Atlantic Coast in the Northeast, with some smaller populations overwintering on Lake Ontario. What were so many doing inland?


In winter of 2014, ice cover on the Great Lakes forced Red-necked Grebes to gather on inland lakes in higher than usual numbers. Curiously, the cold winter of 2015 did not produce the same pattern. Darker shades of purple indicate areas with more Red-necked Grebe sightings (data from eBird).

The winter of 2013-14 was historically cold, and Great Lakes ice cover exceeded 92 percent (50 percent ice cover is about average). With America’s easternmost Great Lake just about frozen over, the grebes were forced off of Lake Ontario and headed south and east to find open water—hence the high inland grebe counts in the GBBC. And then in March 2014, as grebes migrating from the Atlantic Coast looked for their traditional rest stop on Lake Ontario, they instead found ice and probably had to reverse course, further bolstering the numbers of inland grebes. Since these grebes were probably short on fuel, fallouts ensued as these grebes landed on whatever open water they could find south and east of Lake Ontario.

Looking back further into the eBird data, this March pattern also happened in 1993 and again in 2003. And it looked like the same recipe for grebe fallouts was cooking up this year, with another epically cold winter and the Great Lakes again more than 90 percent frozen.

But as team eBird closely monitored the Red-necked Grebe reports in the East this winter and spring, the large inland congregations of grebes never materialized. What happened? There are a few possible explanations.

It could be that when Lake Ontario froze on consecutive years back-to-back, some grebes changed their behavior, as they learned not to attempt to winter on Lake Ontario. It is also possible that many of last year’s grebes that were forced off Lake Ontario died, either as a direct result of the freezing in February or because they were simply less healthy for their spring migration after the freezeout.

The two options above would explain the lack of a midwinter movement, but what about March? This year, despite high ice cover on the Great Lakes, large patches of Lake Ontario had opened up again in March. So grebes migrating from the Atlantic found open water at the right time take a rest on Lake Ontario on their journey back northwest toward breeding areas in Canada and Alaska.

As of now, it seems grebes are finding no interruptions to their regularly scheduled migration on the northwest shore of Lake Ontario. The lake is ice-free in the Toronto area, and on April 5 one dedicated Canadian birder carefully counted 1,529 Red-necked Grebes there on a single eBird checklist!

For more information:

Gustave Axelson is a Cornell Lab science editor; Marshall Iliff is a co-leader of eBird.

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