2021 Science Reporting – Small Outlet - Silver

Tony Bartelme’s story on the eastern black rail, dubbed the “ghost bird” for its elusiveness, went beyond the plight of an endangered species to discuss the impacts of climate change, the obsession of a South Carolina scientist who has been studying the black rail, and the fraught ways in which federal agencies and political institutions sometimes cope with species that capture the public’s imagination. In 2010, environmental groups asked the federal government to protect black rails under the Endangered Species Act. Two months after Bartelme’s story appeared, the U.S. Department of Interior formally listed the birds as “threatened” under the act. Populations of the tiny bird―slightly bigger than a mouse and lighter than a golf ball, as Bartelme describes it―have declined over 75 percent during the last 10 to 20 years, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Bartelme spent hours in Lowcountry swamps observing biologist Christy Hand at work studying the bird. He used interviews with ornithologists and other experts, research papers, birding databases, lawsuit records and information obtained by Freedom of Information Act requests to tell a compelling story grounded in science, history and one scientist’s passion to learn more about a bird with piercing red eyes and a kickee-doo call. “A riveting piece driven by stunningly eloquent narration,” judge Lauren Weber said. “Science journalism at its best.” Bartelme said he loved working on the story, “wading into the swamps, experiencing the scientists' passion for their work, writing a story about beauty and history. It was all bit of therapy during the pandemic.” He added, “On a larger level, this kind of national recognition helps show our readers the value of explanatory journalism.  I'm thrilled and so very thankful to the AAAS Kavli judges for this honor.”