Tag Archives: NEAFWA

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!

This photo is from when we originally captured the bear. Photo courtesy of Jonah.

Things that bear nerds do

Today you're reading about black bear research from Jonah Gula, a senior in the wildlife biology program at Unity College in Maine. Originally from eastern San Diego, Jonah is interested in wildlife research and plans to pursue a master's in wildlife biology. Photo courtesy of Jonah.

Today you’re reading about black bear research from Jonah Gula, a senior in the wildlife biology program at Unity College in Maine. In this photo, he’s learning how to walk in on a bear during fall. Originally from eastern San Diego, Jonah is interested in wildlife research and plans to pursue a master’s in wildlife biology. Photo courtesy of Jonah.

I’ve worked on the Unity College Bear Study in Unity, Maine, for about a year and a half now. As we begin our second summer field season with a new crew, lessons learned, and a better understanding of where bears are in the area, I am confident that the student-led study will be even more successful this summer. Last year, to the surprise of many, we captured eight individual bears and were able to deploy three collars on females. Currently, there is one two-year-old female with a GPS/satellite collar that provides locations every four and a half hours, allowing us to practically monitor her every move.

I can honestly say that when I first began on the study, I did not have the greatest interest in black bears. Most of all, I was looking for an opportunity to gain experience in wildlife research as an undergraduate student. Well, in addition to a great experience, I’ve certainly become infatuated with bears. The fact that we can monitor our bear every few hours in almost real time astounds me. I’ve made it a part of my regular routine to check up on her latest whereabouts; as I go on my laptop periodically throughout the day I stop at my email inbox, check my Facebook notifications, and log in to see where her travels have taken her.

As a student, this all excites me. Based on the three females we’ve monitored so far, we’re finding that bears in this area of central Maine are moving across larger home ranges than in northern and Downeast Maine. So I can’t help but wonder: where will she go next? I’m always hoping for some long journey that’s out of the ordinary, but all too often I find her moving from place to place, spending a day or two here and there.

This photo is from when we originally captured the bear. Photo courtesy of Jonah.

This photo is from when we originally captured the bear. Photo courtesy of Jonah.

Last week, for five days straight, she stayed in a concentrated area, and I finally became so curious why she had settled down there that I took it upon myself to walk in on her. Her GPS/satellite collar is also equipped with a radio beacon, which allowed me to determine where she was by following the radio signal emitted by the collar.

After stalking through some partial cut woods and carefully placing my every step to avoid snapping twigs, I came to a fairly dense boggy area. While listening for the radio signal I scanned through the leafless winterberry and alder. My eyes stopped on a curious black shape that, after some squinting, I realized was the outline of the bear’s head. She was just staring curiously at me, and I back at her. I have terrible eyesight and wished I had brought binoculars, despite being about 150 feet away.

I stayed perfectly still and eventually she went back to her business of munching on sedges that surrounded the grass bed she was laying in. With my eyes on her, I stepped up onto a little mound to get a better perspective and snapped a twig. She bolted and the last I saw of her was her rear-end splashing through the bog.

I thought it best to inspect her bed and possibly collect a scat, as well as take a look around at possible food sources. Sedges and grasses were plentiful and a rotting smell alerted me to some skunk cabbage, a springtime favorite for bears. Her bed was very depressed and it was obvious that she had been there for days, just as the GPS locations had shown. Peculiarly, I found eleven scat piles around the perimeter of the bed, as if she were too lazy to move from her resting spot to relieve herself. As I looted through the poop and bagged a couple of piles, I couldn’t help but chuckle. “I will gladly do this for the rest of my life,” I thought.