Tag Archives: neotropical birds

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!


Teaming up for science

The Northeast Region Conservation Science Team

Randy Dettmers is a senior migratory bird biologist and chair of the Northeast Region Conservation Science Team.

Randy Dettmers is a senior migratory bird biologist and chair of the Northeast Region Conservation Science Team.

Ten years ago I was working on compiling one of the first all-bird conservation plans in the country.

We knew some of these species faced severe and growing threats to their survival. But we didn’t have an approach that would accurately visualize these threats and their impacts.

The plan covered the Atlantic Northern Forest Bird Conservation Region and was based on a wealth of knowledge and input from a broad array of partners. It highlighted birds of highest concern across all bird groups, including waterfowl, waterbirds, shorebirds and landbirds, and it identified priority conservation and management actions necessary to maintain desired populations.

Some of these species, such as the American black duck, American woodcock and piping plover, are relatively well known. Others, such as the bay-breasted warbler, Bicknell’s thrush and red-necked phalarope, are familiar only to ornithologists and the most die-hard bird watchers.

Although I was helping to pull together information for all bird groups, my particular interest and experience is with neotropical migrants, birds that spend the summer in North America and winter in Central or South America.

The Northern Forest region, which covers portions of Massachusetts and New York north to Quebec and New Brunswick, provides important breeding habitat for many neotropical migrants, including several of those species identified as highest priority in the region, such as bay-breasted warbler, Bicknell’s thrush, and Canada warbler.


The cerulean warbler breeds in mature forests in eastern North America and migrates each year across the Gulf of Mexico and through Central America to winter in South America. From April to September, cerulean warblers are concentrated in the mountainous Appalachian regions of West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, Tennessee, and Kentucky.

At the time, we knew there were some major, landscape-scale threats on the horizon for these species, such as climate change and impacts of changing forest management practices. But we struggled with how to gather the appropriate information and apply the best science to assess what the potential impacts from these threats might be.

Having a better understanding of the threats across the Northeast landscape and the different science available to address them would have been really helpful. Making this process easier would have helped us plan for the management and conservation of these species and their habitats in the Northern Forest.

Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working toward a better understanding of those landscape-scale threats and the science needed to address them. We are using the strategic habitat conservation (SHC) framework and leading the effort to develop the science necessary to address major, landscape-scale conservation threats through landscape conservation cooperatives (LCCs).

Our programs within the Service are collaborating and coordinating more on issues that affect all trust resources, and we continue to develop and promote partnerships with states, other federal agencies, partnerships like joint ventures and non-governmental organizations.

randy dettmers birding in scotland

Randy Dettmers birding in Scotland.

These new structures and levels of integration across and among agencies are making it easier to assess potential impacts of and plan for the daunting conservation challenges we face in sustaining the species the Service is entrusted to maintain for the benefit of the American people and future generations.

Because of these new structures and levels of integration, I am excited to be participating in the Northeast Region’s Conservation Science Team. A representative from each Service program was nominated to participate in the team, which is charged with helping the programs better collaborate on addressing common science needs and to inform LCCs of each programs and the regional science needs.

I am already seeing benefits of working through the Science Team and the North Atlantic LCC.

For example, the team recently recommended funding a collaborative research project between the U.S. Geological Survey and the Service’s Migratory Birds and National Wildlife Refuge programs to assess how birds breeding in the forests of northern New England are responding to current forest management practices.

Additionally, the North Atlantic LCC is funding a project to model impacts of large, landscape-scale stressors such as climate change and urban development on habitat quality and quantity.

These two projects will provide critical information for helping the Service and our partners develop and implement better conservation actions for sustaining high priority bird species, such as the neotropical migrants of the Northern Forest region that I mentioned earlier.

These efforts are examples of the innovative approaches the Service is undertaking. We are leveraging science to address landscape-scale threats. We are becoming even more of a science-driven conservation organization, and we are working effectively and efficiently to address the conservation challenges of the 21st century.

Read more from this series!