Author Archives: bridgetmacdonald

Restoring hope in the Chesapeake Bay

John Smith, Jacques Cousteau, Rachel Carson. People have long recognized the significance of the Chesapeake Bay: it is the largest estuary in the nation, a corridor for migrating American shad and striped bass, a nursery for juvenile fish and blue crab, and the birthplace of Old Bay Seasoning.

In the early 1980s, people also recognized that pollution and mismanagement were having a significant impact on this system. The underwater grasses that provide oxygen, absorb nutrients, and feed and shelter fish were becoming sparse; populations of crab, shad, and bass were plummeting; there wasn’t much for Old Bay to season anymore.

In response, Congress appropriated funding to create the Chesapeake Bay Program, a partnership that has led collaborative restoration and protection efforts in the watershed since 1983, and has gradually been moving the needle in the right direction for the fish, wildlife, and people who depend upon this system. Remember those sparse underwater grasses? They have increased in abundance by about 125 percent in the past 40 years.

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Underwater grasses play a vital role in the health of the bay — providing oxygen, absorbing excess nutrients, trapping sediment, and sheltering the iconic blue crab. Photo: FWS

This week partners have been commemorating such restoration milestones in events throughout the watershed as part of the 3rd annual Chesapeake Bay Awareness Week, and now they have something new to celebrate. On May 30th, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) released a draft plan developed with support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and states to help partners in the Chesapeake identify the most strategic places for cross-cutting restoration actions to support the long-term health of the watershed.

Places like Tangier Sound, Mobjack Bay, and the Choptank River, which caught Chris Guy’s attention because it flows through his home state of Maryland before draining into the Bay.

“The Choptank came out as a priority, and now the Corps is identifying sites in the tributaries where they can say: If all you have is $1 for restoration, that’s where you want to spend it,” said Guy, Branch Chief for Conservation Planning and Assistance at the Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office.

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The Choptank River, the longest on the Delmarva peninsula, is one of the places that was identified as a priority area for restoring tidal wetlands. Photo: NOAA

Those investments are backed by more than 200 stakeholders who contributed to the plan, including representatives from every Service field office and state wildlife agency encompassed within the watershed.

“We focused on identifying places where partners could get the most habitat restoration and conservation benefits based on the goals and outcomes outlined in the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Agreement,” explained Alicia Logalbo, Chief of the Norfolk District’s Environmental Analysis Section for the Corps, who coordinated the development of the plan.

The Bay Program created the 2014 agreement as a way of tracking progress in the restoration effort. It focuses on 10 overarching goals related to biodiversity, clean water, climate resiliency, conservation, and community engagement. Given that those goals can be approached through a multitude of different sites, actions, and initiatives, the fundamental question became, where are the best places to start?

“There are many restoration opportunities, but we wanted to get that down to a manageable amount and also identify those opportunities that optimize multiple Bay Agreement goals and outcomes,” said Logalbo. “We wanted to take those broad goals and opportunities and put them on the map.”

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The Service’s restoration priorities focus on supporting fish and wildlife throughout their ranges. For example, identifying aquatic barriers for American eel, which must migrate to from freshwater to the ocean to spawn. Photo: FWS

As the Service’s liaison to the Corps, Guy explained, “My role was to communicate what is important to U.S. Fish & Wildlife.” Naturally, fish and wildlife were a top priority — “endangered species, species of concern, migratory birds” — but so were landscape characteristics that can support species throughout their ranges, like aquatic connectivity. “We want to be able to say this culvert in this stream is blocking eels,” said Guy.

The Corps synthesized and analyzed information from the Service and states to understand what partners wanted to sustain at what level, and what threats or barriers were keeping that from happening. But there were still some gaps in the data, so they turned to Nature’s Network — a collaborative effort to identify the best opportunities for conserving and connecting intact habitats and ecosystems across the entire 13-state Northeast region.

“We looked at lot of factors for prioritization in the watershed, like development threats and stream restoration potential, but we wanted to be able to optimize for wildlife,” said Logalbo.

The imperiled species layer from Nature’s Network offered spatially explicit information about the location of the most important habitat for fish and wildlife species, and the connectivity analysis helped them understand how to ensure that habitat could be fully utilized as part of functioning network.

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Bog turtle is considered imperiled in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and is one of thousands of species whose habitat needs are incorporated into Nature’s Network. Photo: FWS

“I think regional information really helps you focus,” she said, “You can fine tune it with local information or field visits, but regional perspective gives you the broad brush to optimize, and then zoom into important areas you can verify.”

Areas like the Choptank, where the plan has already started a conservation dialogue.

After the river emerged as important in the analysis, the Corps approached Guy for his perspective on reviving a number of projects that had been identified in the Choptank years ago, but had fallen by the wayside.

“They asked, are these still good projects? Which ones would you like to see happen?” said Guy.

More than just suggesting the best starting places for restoration, the plan is already providing a vehicle for moving forward.

The Chesapeake Bay draft Comprehensive Plan and Restoration Roadmap is now available for public review on the USACE website.

This farmer’s got your goat

After living in a densely populated refugee camp in Nepal for nearly 20 years, Chuda Dhaurali considered carefully when asked where he wanted to resettle with his family.

“We learned a lot of things about Vermont, and we decided that’s where we wanted to go,” he said.

Dhaurali was drawn to Vermont for the same reasons many people have been for generations: rugged mountains and fertile river valleys.

Originally from a farming family in Bhutan, a country on the eastern edge of the Himalayas, he hoped he would find an opportunity to farm again when he moved to Vermont in 2009. He found that and much more at Pine Island Farm.

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Goats on the heels of farmer Chuda Dhaurali at feeding time at Pine Island Farm. Credit: Katie Kain/FWS

Born out of a partnership between the Vermont Land Trust, the Association of Africans Living in Vermont, and the Vermont Goat Collaborative, Pine Island Farm was established in response to a need for halal meat from the growing population of new Americans who have been resettled in communities around Burlington through the United Nations Refugee Agency.

As the pilot goat farmer on the 230-acre property that was once a cow dairy, Dhaurali helps sustain the agricultural traditions of his new community, the cultural traditions of his fellow new Americans, and the watershed that supports them all. Through the U.S. Department of Agriculture Conservation Reserve Enhancement (CREP) Program, Pine Island gave up seven acres of land for the creation of riparian buffer along the Winooski River, with planting and monitoring help from the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program.

Dhaurali’s story is featured in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Nature’s Good Neighbors series, which highlights people across the U.S. who depend on the land as much as the land depends on them. These modern-day stewards of the land are working with nature to make a home for people and wildlife.

Click here to read the full story.

Radar love: Weather data detects hotspots for migratory birds

Have you ever taken a long road trip covering hundreds or even thousands of miles, during which you were pretty much flying by the seat of your pants navigationally? Let me guess: You were broke, moving, between jobs, between semesters, on a journey of discovery, or all of the above. And if your trip took place in the not-so-distant pre-smartphone era, you were also constantly trying to figure out your next move based on maps, vacancy signs, and billboards promising all-you-can eat anything, though usually not salad.

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Migratory birds like yellow warbler need to make many stops to rest and refuel during their annual journeys to wintering grounds as far away as South America. Credit: FWS

Migratory birds that breed in North America embark on a similar journey every fall to reach wintering grounds as far away as South America. Similar in that they are also flying by the seats of their pants, but different in that they are actually flying, are not wearing pants, and face much graver dangers than overindulging at the waffle bar.

Tall buildings, food scarcity, high winds, cats — rife with threats, migration is a stressful time in the life of birds. They suffer higher mortality in this period than in any other phase in their annual life cycles, and that can put a strain on entire populations. It’s critical that birds have safe places to rest and refuel along this perilous journey, and the more we can do to help manage and protect important stopover sites for them, the more likely they will be to reach their destinations.

The first step to protecting the most important stopover sites is to figure out where they are located. I know what you’re thinking: Bird migration road trip

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Radars detect birds initiating migratory flights from stopover sites, and provide an estimate of the relative density of birds leaving a given location

Dr. Jeff Buler at the University of Delaware had a better idea. “In the Northeast, nothing provides more comprehensive coverage of the land surface than radar,” he points out. “It detects birds over more than a third of the land area in the Northeast.” 

With support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other partners, Buler and his colleagues analyzed seven years of weather surveillance radar data to predict potentially important stopover sites for migratory landbirds in the region. They also conducted surveys for two fall seasons at 48 sites in the Delmarva peninsula and mainland Virginia to corroborate the radar detections with that they observed on the ground.

“We wanted to know: What are birds doing during stopovers, and why are they choosing certain sites over others?” says Buler. Here is what they found out:

Bright lights, bird city

When was the last time you gazed up at the Milky Way galaxy shimmering in the night sky from your front steps? For 70 percent of the population of the United States, it’s been awhile. Light pollution has increased dramatically in the past century, and the Northeast is one of the brightest areas on the entire planet. It’s affecting more than star gazers.

“Birds flying at about 500 meters above the ground can always detect the sky glow of some large city on the horizon,” says Buler. For migratory birds, artificial light is never out of sight, and it appears to be attractive. The study showed that migrant bird density increased with proximity to the brightest areas. Also known as cities.

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A composite satellite image of the Northeast and Midwest shows the extent of artificial night light in the region. Credit: NASA

Two other key factors that determine where birds are likely to stop are the distance to the Atlantic coast, and the amount of hardwood forest cover on the landscape. “Migrant density is higher in places where there is more food, but migrants also become concentrated in coastal areas because winds push them out over the ocean, and they need need to retreat back to land,” explains Buler.

Across the landscape, results showed that birds responded positively to the coast, bright lights, hardwood forest, and any combination of those variables, indicating that migrant stopover was extra concentrated in woods of urban and suburban parks near the Atlantic coast.

“We need to recognize the importance of urban parks for migratory birds,” says Buler. For the thousands of individual birds representing hundreds of species that are passing through in the fall, these areas are like oases in the concrete jungle. Enhancing the habitat quality of urban forests for migrants by planting native vegetation that will host more insects and fruit during migration may be the best way to maximize the conservation value of these parks.

He also points out an important demographic detail: The relative intensity of use of urban areas is higher in the fall than in the spring. “Fall is when you see naive birds that are migrating for the first time, and studies show that juveniles have strong orientation to bright lights,” says Buler. “Probably in fall, parks are hosting a lot of young birds.” Which represent future generations of their species.

Between meals

If in the midst of a long road trip, you crashed on the floor of a friend’s studio apartment overlooking a busy intersection, you might be inclined to hit the road first thing the next morning. Especially if it’s that friend with the enormous dog who could use a bath and always seems to want to lick your face. If during that same trip, however, you crashed in the guest room of your grandparents’ quiet country home, and they were eager to cook for you, you’d probably stay until they kicked you out.

The ground surveys that Buler and his colleagues conducted at stopover sites in Virginia, Delaware, and Maryland not only helped them corroborate what they were seeing on the radar, they helped them figure out how long birds stayed at certain stopover sites, and why. As with people, it has a lot to do with the quality and quantity of resources available to help them rest and refuel.

“We could see the whole spectrum of uses across the framework of site types,” said Buler, explaining that the framework ranges from so-called “fire escape” sites that only offer a safe place to land in an emergency, to sites with lots of food and space where birds can comfortably rest and refuel.

“The fire-escape sites – which are typically along the coast and in urban areas — get heavy day-to-day use, but there is a lot of turnover,” he says. “Whereas birds tend to stay longer at sites away from the coast with lots of food.”

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Shrubs that fruit in the fall, like American cranberry bush, are an important food source for birds during their seasonal migration. Credit: USDA

But the surveys showed that birds tend to stay the longest at sites in the middle of the resource spectrum. While that may seem counterintuitive to those of us who can’t get enough of grandma’s cooking, it’s consistent with what ornithologists call optimal migration theory. “If food is really good or really poor at a given site, you will only stay for a short time: Either there is nothing to eat, or you get a giant satisfying meal right away,” explains Buler. “At places where there is only a moderate amount of food available, it takes longer to refuel, so birds tend to stay longer.”

The surveys also provided detailed intelligence on what exactly migratory species are eating during their stopovers, and the researchers used that information to model habitat relationships for 14 of the most common species.

“For example, both black-throated blue warblers and American redstarts seem to be more closely associated with Lepidoptera larvae – caterpillars of moths and butterflies — than just insects in general,” says Buler.

Sky’s the limit for use on the ground

The combination of the regional radar data and the survey data equips people involved in conservation at any scale to identify important stopover sites and make management decisions that reflect the needs of specific species, such as ground foragers that feed on insects in the leaf litter.

The radar data capture nearly half of the National Wildlife Refuges in the Northeast, emphasizing their importance as stopover habitat, particularly in properties near the Atlantic Coast.

While the maps are useful for informing management strategies on protected lands — Buler says the data can help identify new priorities as well. “We can see many places with heavy use by migratory birds that are not yet protected.”

When Gwen Brewer of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources looked at the study results, she said, “The Pocomoke River corridor on the Eastern shore just lit up like crazy as a migratory hotspot.”

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The Pocomoke River corridor shows up as a hotspot for migratory birds on the radar. Credit: Maryland DNR

The DNR provided funding to help ground truth the radar data in coastal Maryland and the Delmarva Peninsula through the Resource Assessment Service Power Plant Research Program. Brewer, who is the Science Program Manager for the Wildlife and Heritage Service, said the study can direct her agency to other priority areas where they can use fine-scale data to narrow in on the forest patches that offer the greatest value to migratory birds.

“By showing us what stands out as important in Maryland, the study also helps us understand what our role should be in the big conservation picture,” she said. “It helps us think about the responsibility we have as part of the larger landscape, and that can inform our in-state process for acquisition, easements, and grant proposals.”

The full report, maps, and data depicting predicted bird density during fall migration are now available in the Northeast Stopover Sites for Migratory Landbirds gallery on DataBasin, and you can find a short video that the University of Delaware produced about the artificial light finding here.