People Behind a Stronger Coast: Randy Dettmers

Randy Dettmers shares a bird caught during a mist netting demonstration at Silvio Conte National Wildlife Refuge with a local high school student .

A few undergraduate semesters spent writing code in dark and dreary basements provided enough evidence for Randy Dettmers that computer science was not the career path he was destined to follow. This valuable lesson paired with his general interests in biology and conservation blossomed into a career revolving around the protection of wildlife species, where his interests were able to take flight.

Randy Dettmers shares a bird caught during a mist netting demonstration at Silvio Conte National Wildlife Refuge with a local high school student .

Dr. Randy Dettmers introduces a local high school student to bird conservation techniques at Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Margie Brenner/USFWS

Today Dettmers is a senior wildlife biologist at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service focusing on neotropical migrants, songbirds, and raptors. He’s been with the Service since 1999, and has spent all 16 of those years with the Migratory Bird program.

As the designated landbird biologist, Dettmers’ job is to follow population trends of landbirds. He tracks which species are declining most rapidly and heading toward the point where they may need to be considered for endangered species listing.

“My job is to identify the species that are headed in the wrong direction and try to develop management plans to get those species heading in a better direction,” he says. Dettmers also fosters relationships with the Service’s various conservation partners, federal and state agencies, and NGOs. These groups help implement management activities to supplement those developed by the Service.

Randy Dettmers conducting a Bicknell's Thrush survey on Mt. Osceola in New Hampshire's White Mountains.

Dettmers conducts a Bicknell’s thrush survey on Mt. Osceola in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Credit: USFWS

Currently much of Dettmers time has been focused on the Bicknell’s thrush, a bird that breeds in the mountains of New England and Eastern Canada and migrates to the Dominican Republic and Haiti during the winter months. Significant deforestation in the Caribbean has severely limited the wintering habitat available to this species. Studies have documented Bicknell’s thrush population declines of 7% in the White Mountains of New Hampshire from 1993-2000 and 15% in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia from 2002-2009.

“In the Dominican Republic, the estimates tell us that they have about 10 percent of the forest cover that they did historically, and even less than that on the Haiti side of the island.”

While parts of the Bicknell’s thrush habitat in New England and Canada currently remain protected through national forests and state parks, Dettmers’ has been working with the Dominican government to expand that progress in the southern portion of the bird’s range.

“We’ve developed a conservation plan that addresses continuing to protect a lot of Bicknell thrush habitat and the breeding ground,” he says.

credit Chris Elphick

Scientists track a Nelson’s sparrow and a saltmarsh sparrow at Barn Island in Conn., part of the Hurricane Sandy-funded tidal marsh bird resilience research project.  Credit: Chris Elphick/Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

In addition to his work with the Migratory Bird program, Dettmers also serves as the project officer for a $1.5 million Hurricane Sandy-funded project involving the Service’s Migratory Bird and Refuges programs, as well as five universities across the Northeast. The project goal is to monitor the response of birds that breed in salt marshes that have been impacted by Hurricane Sandy. Project partners also monitor the birds’ response to the coastal resilience work being done across the region, especially on national wildlife refuges.

“The project is looking at how both the abundance and reproductive success of saltmarsh birds changed from before to after Sandy, and is in the process of tracking how birds respond to the coastal resilience work being implemented in saltmarshes,” Dettmers says.

In between managing projects that conserve neotropical bird populations, Randy finds time to lead demonstrations in bird banding techniques. A recent bird education mission took Dettmers to Silvio Conte National Wildlife Refuge. Here, he led a trip for nine local high school girls, teaching bird banding and mist netting techniques with fellow wildlife biologist, Mitch Hartley.

Students help dismantle bird nets at the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Margie Brenner/USFWS

Dettmers teaches students how to dismantle bird nets at the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Margie Brenner/USFWS

“We look for opportunities to give demonstrations of how we go about catching birds and banding them, and how we use the information to understand their life history and the things that are affecting the populations,” says Dettmers. He says he believes it’s a worthy experience for a child or high school student to see a bird up close, in the palm of their hand. And through his research and expertise, he has made this experience possible for many curious young scientists.

In his 16 years as wildlife biologist, Dettmers has applied his knowledge of wildlife and conservation to make a difference for many bird species.

“I get to focus on trying to identify species with populations that are declining, and for most of them, we still have time to do something about their decline before they get to the point of maybe becoming an endangered species.” – Dr. Randy Dettmers

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