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ISSUE NUMBER 35 • SEPTEMBER 2019

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Kite Tales

The monthly newsletter of the

Great Florida Birding & Wildlife Trail

Big Year Pins

We’re busy working on designs for our new pins so you can proudly display your Wings Over Florida Big Year total!

Wings Over Florida Big Year

We are well out of the summer birding doldrums and into fall migration – time to get back outside and add the passing migrants to our Florida Big Year lists! Fall is also a great season to go butterfly watching, as temperatures in the middle of the day, when they are most active, become more comfortable for us.

As long as you have seen at least 50 bird species or 20 butterfly species this year, you qualify to receive our bird or butterfly Florida Big Year certificates! This year’s certificates feature beautiful artwork of the Black-necked Stilt and the critically endangered Schaus’ Swallowtail butterfly, and will have your name printed next to your final species count. New this year, we will be sending out big year pins so you can proudly display your Big Year count! We hope that our big year recognitions will become a fun tradition for birders across the state.

Bird bills

Birds have a tremendous variety of bill shapes suited to their specific diets and foraging habits. Pictured (top to bottom): Black Skimmer, Roseate Spoonbill, and Everglades Snail Kite

Science Spotlight: Bizarre Bills

Generations of scientists and naturalists have been entranced by the stunning diversity of birds, with their marked variation in size, shape, vocalization, behavior and plumage. For the next few months, we will be dedicating a section of this newsletter to exploring how and why birds exhibit such variety.

Specialized bird bill shapes are the classic example of natural selection in action. We all remember the story of Darwin describing the different bills of the closely-related finches of the Galapagos, all uniquely adapted to a specific source of food. Here in Florida, we have a few species with truly wild bill shapes, which are all related to how the birds forage and what they eat.

Our Roseate Spoonbills’ unique adaptation is right in the name – the ends of their bills are very flat and broad, resembling a spoon. They forage by submerging the tips of their bills in shallow water and sweeping back and forth until they find their prey, then – snap! – they grab a tasty treat with their broad bills.

Black Skimmers are gorgeous and graceful birds in flight, but when they aren’t flying above the surface of the water, their oddly-proportioned bill is reminiscent of a severe underbite. When they forage, the birds fly with their bills open and their oversized mandible slicing through the surface of the water, searching for fish and crustaceans. The second they touch their prey, they snap their bills shut – an impressive feat while traveling at over 20 mph!

An Everglade Snail Kite’s bill might be less bizarre than the other birds on this list, but it is not less unique. These birds feed almost exclusively on apple snails, which they grab out of the water with their talons. They then use their uniquely hooked bill to extract the snails from their shells. Historically, Florida’s Snail Kites ate Florida apple snails. In the past few decades, however, our native apple snails have been outcompeted by a larger invasive species of apple snail. This could have spelled big trouble for our already vulnerable population of Snail Kites, but in a surprising twist, the birds actually increased their bill sizes in response! While this has helped the birds survive a shift in available food sources, they still face very serious threats from habitat destruction and degradation.

The response of Snail Kites to changing prey is a fortunate development, but most highly specialized species don’t fare so well in the face of change. The diversity of the natural world is incredible, and some of the most fascinating plants and animals have carved out unique niches for themselves. The specializations that make them so unique also unfortunately put them at risk, since even a small change in their environment can be devastating. Think of a monarch butterfly’s reliance on milkweed to complete its life cycle, or a Florida Scrub-Jay’s dependence on scrub oak habitat – if we lose the resources they need, we will lose these animals. If we want to hold onto these species, we need to protect the wild spaces where they live from development and degredation.

Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area

Photo by David Moynahan, FWC

Trail Site of the Month: Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area

Just 16 miles south of Orlandp, Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area provides ample opportunities for birding and exploring along a network of unpaved roads and over nine miles of marked trails. This WEA has pine flatwoods, hardwood hammock, oak scrub and sandhill habitats; it is also bordered by two lakes fringed by cypress swamps and wet prairies. The diverse landscape is host to an equally diverse array of species, including gopher tortoises, fox squirrels, Northern Bobwhites, Bachman’s Sparrows and Eastern Meadowlarks. Searching for migrating species can be especially productive in the scrubby oaks just east of the parking area. The eBird list for the site has 137 species, and the iNaturalist project includes observations of over 800 species, including pitcher plants, gorgeous wildflowers and beautiful butterflies.

The time is right to visit Split Oak Forest WEA – as fall approaches, biting insects and humidity will be less unpleasant, and migrating species will be passing through! Whether you live in the Orlando area or are one of the region’s many visitors, why not take a quick trip to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and explore natural Florida’s wonders? For a longer getaway, be sure to reserve a campground at the adjacent Moss Park, which connects via a trail to the WEA.

Address: Clapp Simms Duda Rd., Orlando, 32832

Hours: ½ hour before sunrise to ½ hour after sunset

Phone: 407-254-6840

Upcoming Events

September 20 – Space Coast Audubon Monthly Meeting and Potluck (Rockledge)
September 21 – Cleanup at St. Augustine Road Fish Management Area (Jacksonville)
September 21 – Eaglewatch Training (Jacksonville)
September 22 – Guided Bird Walk at Anastasia State Park (St. Augustine)
September 23 – Litter Gitter II Shorebird Habitat Cleanup (St. Augustine)
September 26 – Red-cockaded Woodpecker Habitat Talk (Brooksville)
September 27 – Beginner Birding Walk (Brooksville)
September 27 – Nature Walk (Silver Springs)
September 28 – Scrub-jay Trail Day (Clermont)
September 28 – Introduction to Birdwatching Presentation (Ocala)
September 29 – West Side Industrial Park Birding Field Trip (Jacksonville)
October 5 – Scrub-jay Trail Orientation (Clermont)
October 5 – Insect Safari (Oakland)
October 6 – Jekyll Island Banding Station (Jekyll Island, GA)
October 7 – Hernando Audubon Birding Trip to Dixie Shores (Crystal River)
October 8 – Homeschool Class Series – Creatures of the Night (Oakland)
October 11 – 13 – Festival of Flight and Flowers (Lake County)

Check out the events page of our website for more events across the state!

Do you know about any other bird- or wildlife-related events going on in Florida? Help spread the word by letting us know! Send in the times, dates, locations and contacts to wildlifeviewing@myfwc.com for posting on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail website.

Events must be related to birds or other wildlife and must be open to the public. Examples include interpretive programming, summer camps and family programs.

Enjoying our newsletter? Please consider making a tax-deductible donation through the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida to support us in our mission to promote wildlife viewing across the state and help establish the next generation of birders and conservationists.

IN THIS ISSUE

  • Wings Over Florida Big Year
  • Science Spotlight: Bizarre Bills
  • Trail Site of the Month
  • Upcoming Events

The Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail (GFBWT) is a network of over 500 sites spread throughout the state. The Trail is a program of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, supported in part by the Florida Department of Transportation and the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida. The Trail is possible thanks to dozens of federal, state, and local government agencies, non-governmental organizations and private landowners. Continued, broad-based support and grassroots community investment will continue to make the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail a success for Florida and for our feathered friends.

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inSight
INSIGHT

Saudi Oil Facility Attacks May Have Come from Iraq

Stephen Bryen  September 16, 2019

A satellite image reveals thick black smoke rising from Saudi Aramco’s Abqaiq oil processing facility in Buqyaq. (Photo: Planet Labs Inc / AP)

It is growing more certain that the attacks on the Khurais oil field and the Abqaiq oil processing center in Saudi Arabia were launched from southern Iraq and not from Yemen by the Houthis.  This was made clear by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who said “There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.”  While Pompeo put the blame squarely on Iran, he did not say where the attacks originated.  Meanwhile the Saudi Arabian Air Force launched retaliatory attacks on Houthis military sites in Yemen.

It is quite true that Yahia Sarie, the military spokesman for the Houthi forces in Yemen, appearing on al-Masirah satellite news channel, in a short TV address, claimed that the Houthis had launched ten suicide drones and had help in targeting Saudi oil facilities from “intelligence” from sources inside Saudi Arabia.

But sources in Iraq and Washington say that the attacks were launched from Iraq, most likely from pro-Iranian militias operating in the open and guided by Iran’s al-Quds (Revolutionary Guards) forces, led by Major General Qasem Soleimani.  It was this same force that recently attempted to launch a swarming drone attack on Israel.

It is possible that Soleimani feared some deal emerging between the Iranian government and the United States, and launched this attack as a preemptive strike.  But offsetting this thesis is the fact that the preparation for this strike took some time and required the movement of a lot of equipment from Iran to Iraq, and careful intelligence about the Saudi targets.  This weighs against the preemption theory.

But whichever way, there isn’t much doubt in the minds of Iraqi observers.

The leading Iraqi analyst based in the United States is Entifadh Qanbar, President and Founder of the Future Foundation.  He previously served as Iraq’s Deputy Military Attaché and as the spokesman for and adviser to Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister.   He closely follows developments in his home country and has many associates feeding him information that has more than once proved to be accurate.  His information about the attack coming from iraq is backed up by prior history and by Pompeo’s clear declaration.

As Qanbar knows, this attack would not be the first time that Iran has used Iraq to hit Saudi oil facilities.  At least one major previous attack was launched by Iraqi militias and the Iranians from Iraqi territory.   Last June the Wall Street Journal carried an important report, based on conclusions reached by US officials, that a May 14th drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil industry originated in southern Iraq.  According to the Journal, when challenged by the United States, Iraqi officials requested more information and claimed there was no conclusive evidence the attacks originated on their territory.

There are a number of Iranian-guided Sh’ia militias in Iraq that have received drones from Iran.  Former senior Iraqi officials in Washington who are opponents of the current Iraqi government they view as compromised by Iran, believes the likely culprit is Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba (Movement of the Party of God’s Nobles).  Hezbollah al-Nujaba had been heavily involved in the fighting in Syria and has received from Iran and operated a drone called the Yasir UAV (drone), based on the US Boeing-Insitu ScanEagle. Iran apparently captured a few ScanEagle drones and cloned them, and also changed them from surveillance models to suicide drones.  This drone has an endurance (depending on model) of between 8 and 20 hours, making it more than capable of flying from southern Iraq to the Saudi oil facilities. ““The (suicide) drone can be used for hitting the aerial and ground targets and can carry out an attack when it identifies a suspicious target,” Iranian Army Ground Force Commander Brigadier General Ahmad Reza Pourdastan” said in 2015.

But Iraqi observers say that the attack on Abqaiq involved three drones and three cruise missiles.  The cruise missile is believed to be the Quds-1.  A version of the Quds-1, using a small jet engine (model PBS TJ100 ) manufactured in the Czech Republic, is produced in Iran for the Houthis.  Nothing specific is known of the range of the Quds-1 but experts say it is a version of Iran’s Soumar cruise missile. But the Quds-1, with its 43 pound Czech turbine engine, probably carries a smaller payload than the Soumar, and the Soumar could have either a Russian or Chinese engine. (The Soumar is said to resemble the Russian Kh55SM cruise missile.)  Iran likely replaced the more capable engines of their Quds-1 with a lesser powered system for the Houthis, primarily so as not to implicate the Russian or Chinese suppliers, since the Iranian version has very long range (2,000 km or more) and large warhead.

(The Quds-1 with the Czech-supplied engine on top.  The rear portion is a rocket assist for launch and is discarded.  The warhead is in the front section.)

The Houthis previously fired a Quds-1(reported on July, 29th) at the Abha International Airport in Asir, which is located close to Yemen near the Red Sea.  According to the Houthi military spokesman, “[the] Quds 1 missile targeted the military operations center and warplanes’ locations at the airport.  A number of civilians were injured in the attack, including one carrying an Indian passport.  There is no information about damage to military aircraft or military compounds at the airport.

If the Iraqi reports are accurate, then other missiles or drones or both were launched at the Khurais oil field facilities.  Houthi spokesman has used the term “10 drones” but did not mention cruise missiles.

The Houthis have a variety of Iran-supplied drones which are re-badged by the Houthis.  If the attacks on the oil facilities did not use the weaponized Yasir UAV, which is rather small, it is probable that the drones used were Houthi models of the Iranian Ababil 2/T which the Houthis have named the Qasef-2K.  An earlier version, Qasef-1 has been exploited by Western technicians and experts, including experts from the United Nations.  The warhead is a molded high explosive fragmentation type stuffed with ball bearings to cause maximum damage.  These drones, classified as loitering munitions, are powered either by German (3W110i B2 engine) or Chinese (DLE-111 two-cylinder petrol model manufactured by the Chinese company Mile HaoXiang Technology Co. Ltd.) two-cylinder engines and push propeller and can fly at least six hours.  In the UN Security Council Report, the range for the Qasef drone which it calls UAV-X is between 1,200 and 1,500 km (745 to 932 miles).

Why Deception?

It would have been strongly in Iran’s interest to make the attacks on the Saudi oil facilities look like they were launched by the Houthis.  The Houthis were exceptionally happy to take responsibility for an attack that may have destroyed half of Saudi Arabia’s daily oil production.  Most reports say that the destruction of the Saudi facilities have cut supplies by 5 million barrels per day.  Saudi oil output has been down in 2019 delivering less than 10 million barrels per day.  The loss of Abgqaiq, which removes impurities from Saudi oil before being shipped from the Kingdom may mean the loss in output could even be greater.  Oil prices are already surging upwards.

The previous attack launched from Iraqi territory was designed to avoid Saudi and US air defenses, particularly the Patriot (MIM-104) surface to air missile system.  Previous Houthi drone attacks had been aimed to neutralize Patriot by destroying Patriot surveillance and targeting radars.  In this latest attack, however, it seems the main idea was to avoid the Patriot system altogether by attacking from behind (from the north) where the Patriot is not looking.  To make the problem even more difficult for the Saudis defending theiroil facilities, the attack featured a swarming-type scenario (multiple UAV’s) mixed with cruise missiles, meaning the attack would come from different operating altitudes to confuse Saudi and US radars.

Another feature of the scheme was to avoid jammers.  Increasingly, jammers are being used as a counter drone strategy.  For jammers to work the target has to be identified, usually by radar and the jammer activated on the frequencies used by the drones or cruise missiles.  The drones used in the attack were far from their control center locations and were probably flying autonomously without a data link, pre-programmed with attack coordinates.  Thus the only jammer target would be to try and disable the drone’s GPS or to send false coordinates to the GPS.  It is not known if any jammers were positioned to carry out this tactic.  In any case, jammers probably are limited and may not be successful in the case of swarming attack drones and missiles.

Other tactics may also have been used, such as flying at extremely low altitude as the drones approached their targets in order to avoid radar detection.

There is no evidence that the Saudi Patriot system was activated, nor is there any information that jamming was used, suggesting that the attack that hit the facilities between 3 and 4 AM local time was not picked up by radar or any other sensor.

A photo of a crashed and exploded Quds-1 cruise missile said to have attacked the Saudi facilities is circulating on Twitter.    The photo is almost certainly a Quds-1 (judging from the fins configuration).  The origin of the photo is unsourced.

(Note the Tail fins that are the same as on the Quds 1 model shown above.)

Iran has denied any and all responsibility for the attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities, no doubt to try and avoid a retaliatory strike that would knock out critical Iranian oil facilities.  Any successful attack on Iran’s oil terminals and other facilities would decisively collapse the current regime who would run out of hard currency and suffer immediate and fatal domestic currency inflation or collapse.

But nonetheless, as Secretary of State Pompeo said: “Tehran is behind nearly 100 attacks on Saudi Arabia while Rouhani and Zarif pretend to engage in diplomacy.

Amid all the calls for de-escalation, Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply.”

 

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