Tag Archives: Bird research

Calling All Birdwatchers: For the Birds, and for Us

Imagine knowing the abundance, distribution, habitat preferences, breeding ecology, migration pattern, and wintering habitat for 100+ bird species in the State of Connecticut. This is no simple task, but it is one that the University of Connecticut and the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, along with many other partner organizations, citizen scientists, and bird lovers alike are willing to take on. The Connecticut Bird Atlas, starting in Spring 2018, will be the second such atlas conducted in the state, with the first Atlas of Breeding Birds in Connecticut published in 1994.

The scarlet tanager, a neotropical migratory species, was identified as a “Forest Health Indicator Species” by the Connecticut Forestlands Council Forest Ecosystem Health Committee for deciduous woodlands.

Unlike the first Connecticut Breeding Bird Atlas which aimed only to identify breeding distributions of Connecticut’s birds, the new study will survey distribution and abundance patterns throughout year, during both the breeding and non-breeding seasons. “The assessment will give us more detailed ecological information in terms of breeding dates, timing of migration, when wintering species arrive to overwintering areas, and how long they stay in overwintering areas,” says Randy Dettmers, senior migratory bird biologist for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service division of Migratory Birds, and contributor to the Connecticut State of the Birds.

Almost three decades since the first Atlas, the habitat for birds in Connecticut has changed significantly. Development and expanding infrastructure have fragmented habitats, a benefit to birds who are habitat generalists but a detrimental change for species that require large areas of undisturbed forest; reforestation of previously developed land has benefited birds that use both mixed hardwood and coniferous forest, but presents challenges for birds that rely on early successional habitats (young forests); loss or conversion of agricultural lands has negatively impacted birds that prefer the old agricultural fields or grasslands but benefit birds who prefer forested habitat; and more variable climate conditions have resulted in birds with a historically “southern” range to now reside in Connecticut year-round. The new Atlas will capture the changes in abundance, distribution, and species composition as a result of these habitat changes, and the data will have implications for creating sound conservation plans, including the Connecticut State Wildlife Action Plan, that will benefit birds and other wildlife.

Zone land cover change in Connecticut from 1985-2010.

Birds are an indicator species for the health of our environment, meaning the presence, abundance, or absence of birds is indicative of a change in the biological health of an ecosystem.

Birds make an excellent proxy for diagnosing the health of an ecosystem which includes birds, other wildlife, and people. They serve as an indicator for how we are adapting or not adapting to the changing landscape and changing climate, making the new Atlas an essential decision-making tool for land managers, municipal planners, developers, state and federal agencies, and conservationists alike.

The cerulean warbler was identified as a “Forest Health Indicator Species” by the Connecticut Forestlands Council Forest Ecosystem Health Committee for deciduous woodlands. Among the rarest Neotropical migrant songbirds, their populations continue to decline due to loss of breeding, migrating, and overwintering habitat.

As often stated, birds do not recognize boundaries, and can be thought of as having dual citizenship. Therefore, the new Atlas will not only provide important implications for the state of Connecticut, but will be used to develop and implement comprehensive, region-wide conservation management strategies. “The updated information from the new Atlas will help us understand how different bird species are shifting their distributions and abundance in southern New England,” says Randy Dettmers. “When comparing the data to information from surrounding states, we will gain a better understanding of how birds are responding to larger environmental changes, including changes in land use, levels of contaminants in the environment, and changes in temperature and precipitation patterns.”

The golden-winged warbler was identified as a “Forest Health Indicator Species” by the Connecticut Forestlands Council Forest Ecosystem Health Committee for shrubland and young forest habitats. Populations are declining due to loss of breeding and wintering habitat.

Without citizen science, scientists would not be able to collect the necessary data to accomplish the task at hand.

The CT Bird Atlas project will be accomplished through the collaborative work of professionals and citizen scientists. Interested in taking advantage of this opportunity to learn about birds and their habitats, gain science skills, and connect with nature while giving back? Check out the CT Bird Atlas website here to see how you can get involved!

 

Vermont graduate student Christine Peterson collecting vegetation data along a power line right of way. Credit: Dr. Allan Strong

Birds on a wire: How power lines can help songbirds

Vermont graduate student Christine Peterson collecting vegetation data along a power line right of way. Credit: Dr. Allan Strong

Today you’re hearing from Christine Peterson, a graduate student in the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. Here she is collecting vegetation data along a power line right-of-way. Credit: Dr. Allan Strong

Many people probably never think about power line rights of way or, perhaps, never even hear of them. But for some migratory bird species, rights of way could provide essential habitat, which is why they have become the focus of my research.

Here is a blue-winged warbler nest we found during habitat mapping. Credit: Christine Peterson

Here is a blue-winged warbler nest we found during habitat mapping. Credit: Christine Peterson

An electric power line right of way (ROW) gives an electric company access to areas where power lines occur, even on privately owned land. In order to access, maintain and repair electric power lines, vegetation along ROWs must be managed to prevent interference. This allows for these ROWs to remain in a shrubby state over long periods of time.

Here’s where the Audubon Society and I come in. The Audubon Vermont chapter of the National Audubon Society recruited local citizen science volunteers to look for priority songbirds to see if our feathered friends were using these shrubby areas created along powerlines. It turned out that four priority bird species, including golden-winged warbler, eastern towhee, blue-winged warbler, and field sparrow were visiting these ROWs. So, as a graduate student, I was called in to take a closer look.

You can find eastern towhees in brush, tangles, thickets and along forest edges. Photo from Flickr Creative Commons user John Beetham. https://www.flickr.com/photos/dendroica/14018896326

You can find eastern towhees in brush, tangles, thickets and along forest edges. Photo from Flickr Creative Commons user John Beetham.

Last summer, I led a field crew to ROWs across the Champlain Valley in Vermont to follow and map these priority songbirds to see which parts of the ROWs they were using. Eighty-seven birds and two months of very early mornings later, we could see where these shrubland birds liked to spend their breeding time. We then revisited all of these areas to collect countless thorn-induced wounds, as well as detailed vegetation data.

With all of this information, my research aims to paint a clearer picture of how these birds use habitat along powerline ROWs. So… why does this matter?

Only about 15 percent of the preserved land in Vermont is publicly owned. That leaves the fate of much of the land up to private landowners.

Because of this, encouraging conservation and management among private landowners is very important. These particular songbirds rely on shrubby (young forest) habitat to mate and reproduce. It is becoming increasingly hard for them to find this habitat, especially in the Northeast region, as forest recovers and matures from the agricultural boom of the early 1900s. Shrubland occurs as a transitional period between when a field becomes forest again, so it requires disturbance to be created. Using areas like ROWs is convenient because they are already managed or “disturbed” regularly and remain in transition.

In order to access, maintain and repair electric power lines, vegetation along rights of ways must be managed to prevent interference. This allows them to remain in a shrubby state over long periods of time. Photo from Flickr Creative Commons user mwms16 https://www.flickr.com/photos/mmwm/7926162740

In order to access, maintain and repair electric power lines, vegetation along rights of ways must be managed to prevent interference. This allows them to remain in a shrubby state over long periods of time. Photo from Flickr Creative Commons user mwms16.

By examining the patterns of how birds use this habitat and what management is being done, I can suggest management that might better serve these bird species. Audubon Vermont and I collaborated on a report that was submitted to the Vermont Electric Cooperative, which manages over 7,500 acres of ROW land in Vermont. With this information, we hope that future management will create more suitable habitat for these declining shrubland songbirds.

Blue-winged warblers breed at forest and field edges. Photo from Flickr Creative Commons user Matt Stratmoen. https://www.flickr.com/photos/stratmoen/9553133103

Blue-winged warblers breed at forest and field edges. Photo from Flickr Creative Commons user Matt Stratmoen.

Findings from this research can also help promote important habitat corridors for songbird migration pathways along what is referred to as the “Atlantic Flyway.” This migration pathway is used by a variety of birds traveling to and from breeding grounds that runs along the eastern coasts of North and South America.

During their long migration, birds need places to stop along the way to rest and refuel for their journey. Creating habitat corridors along migration routes can help these birds get to their destinations!