On the Road: National Adaptation Forum

by Daniel Brown and Jeff Collins

Jeff Collins, Director of Conservation Science, and Daniel Brown, Climate Change Program Coordinator, attended the National Adaptation Forum (NAF) in May in Saint Paul Minnesota.

The National Adaptation Forum is a gathering of scientists, educators, and community leaders working to address the challenges of climate change.

The field of climate adaptation is advancing rapidly, and Daniel presented on Mass Audubon’s work with communities to identify local critical weather thresholds. Thresholds are used to plan for emergencies and design infrastructure, but those thresholds are often outdated and difficult to measure. On top of that, climate change is making extreme weather events change over time, creating a great deal of uncertainty for communities looking to stay safe, healthy, and resilient. That may be soon changing, however, based on the assessment of experts at NAF. Land managers and city planners may soon get a whole host of new tools that will help plan for the size and frequency of future extreme weather.

Some of the most common themes discussed at NAF were environmental justice and the need for ecological conservation efforts to make communities more resilient. For years, the focus has been on what’s called “green” infrastructure—using restored landscape types like parks, greenways, and rain gardens to lessen the effects of climate change. Now the focus seems to be shifting to protecting undeveloped open areas and letting nature provide a resilient, adaptable places for people and wildlife. Mass Audubon’s Mapping and Prioritizing Parcels for Resilience (MAPPR) tool will help with that effort by allowing land conservationists to identify parcels that are a high priority for protection.

Climate change poses many challenges for our communities in the decades ahead. Underserved communities with less access to open space tend to be particularly vulnerable, but the inspiring work of so many institutions across North America gives plenty of reasons to be hopeful.

 

Please consider supporting our bird conservation work by making a donation today. Thank you!

The Treasure Islands of Essex County

by Chris Leahy, Gerard A. Bertrand Chair of Natural History and Field Ornithology emeritus

Halfway Rock © Chris Leahy

There is something about islands. Their remoteness generates a certain mystique.  Even islands inhabited by people have an aura of “away-ness,” and uninhabited ones stimulate visions of hidden treasures of one kind or another. There is also an ecological significance to islands: their plants and animal communities are often different from those of even nearby mainlands; their isolation from other populations promote evolutionary change; and they may act as refuges for certain species because they are hard to reach by predators.

The coastal waters of Essex County from Nahant Bay to Cape Ann are dotted with more than 50 islands ranging in size from small rocky “skerries” which are nearly submerged at high tide to the well-wooded 83-acre Great Misery Island, two of them populated at least seasonally. In 2002 these were formally designated as the Essex County Coastal Birds Islands Important Bird Area*, due to their breeding populations of water birds that rarely nest on the mainland, including a number of rare or uncommon species.

Straitsmouth Island © Chris Leahy

This summer Mass Audubon’s Conservation Science Department, supported by a grant from the Nuttall Ornithological Club, and the help of several generous private boat owners began a survey of these islands with the following basic objectives:

  • Developing a comprehensive understanding of past and current bird survey efforts, data sources, and management activities.
  • Completing an assessment of current breeding bird activity on the islands.
  • Identifying existing stresses such as human use, presence of rats and other predators, vegetation change, and climate vulnerability.
  • Developing recommendations for future management in support of the breeding birds.
  • Raising public awareness of the importance of these islands through programming and networking with state and regional conservation entities.

The survey has already turned up a number of previously unrecorded breeding sites for wading birds and American Oystercatcher.  We will be publishing more detailed results in the near future.

 

*An Important Bird Area (IBA) is an area identified using an internationally agreed upon set of criteria as being globally important for the conservation of bird populations. The program was developed and sites are identified by Birdlife International based in Cambridge, England. Currently there are over 12,000 IBAs worldwide and 79 in Massachusetts.

 

Please consider supporting our bird conservation work by making a donation today. Thank you!

In the Field: Elm Hill

by Jeff Ritterson, Forest Bird Conservation Fellow

Scarlet Tanager © Ruby Sarkar

Past blog posts about our Elm Hill Sanctuary – a Foresters for the Birds demonstration site—have largely discussed the planning of forestry practices to manage and enhance bird habitat.  We kicked the project off last fall and winter, when our migratory birds were hundreds or thousands of miles away.  So, until spring arrived, we were not able to work much with the birds themselves.

A primary focus of the program is indeed birds and their habitat, so it is important to assess how effective any implemented forestry practices are.  This enables us to make adjustments to future management and maximize the benefit for birds.  We do this by monitoring how the birds respond.  At the earliest, on the ground management at Elm Hill will not happen until this coming winter.  However, we will need to compare the future bird response to current, baseline conditions.  A before-and-after, if you will.

Late May through early July is the ideal time to sample breeding birds.  Migration is over, so all the birds have arrived and will likely remain through the season.  They are on breeding territories and actively singing, which helps us to detect their presence.  During this time we can begin to answer some important questions.

For example, which species are present, and what are their general habitat preferences?  How many species are present?  How many individuals of each species are present?  Is a particular species absent that we may have expected?  Answering questions like these help us to characterize the current bird community.  Answering the same questions after habitat management will help us assess just how effective our efforts were.

Wood Thrush nest © Michael Ross

This is why, with the help of volunteers, Sheila Carroll and Mark Lynch, we recently completed a series of point count surveys at Elm Hill, all within areas that are slated for management in the near future.  With this initial information in hand, we will eventually see how things change after management, which is geared towards helping species in need of conservation action.  The next step will be to dig into the data, and some results will be shared in future Elm Hill updates.  Stay tuned!

Please consider supporting our bird conservation work by making a donation today. Thank you!

How birds sing such intricate songs

By Jeff Ritterson, Bird Conservation Fellow

The colorful bursts of flowers and the familiar smell of thawing soils that we all associate with spring is always accompanied by the wonderful sound of bird song.  There is nothing quite like waking early enough to experience the dawn chorus, where male birds, representing a slew of different species, are persistently singing to secure a breeding territory and attract a mate for the season.

Wood Thrush © Sheila Carroll

The beauty and complexity of these songs is attributable to a unique organ that most birds possess, called a syrinx.  Located where the trachea – commonly known as the windpipe – splits into the bronchial tubes before entering the lungs, the syrinx has two symmetric halves, each capable of producing sound independently.  This enables songsters to make seamless changes in pitch, articulate a complex burst of short notes, and even sing two tones at once.

Some of our most impressive singers are the thrushes.  This family (Turdidae) includes species such as the American Robin and Eastern Bluebird, but perhaps the most impressive singers are those which inhabit deep forests.  Some of these songs, such as the Wood Thrush’s and Veery’s, are featured on the following website, where you to listen at regular speed as well as slowed down:

http://www.wildmusic.org/animals/thrush

When you slow the songs down you can really hear the intricacies.  Put some headphones on to really have a close listen, and maybe you will have a fuller appreciation the next time you hear a bird singing.

Please consider supporting our bird conservation work by making a donation today. Thank you!

Standing Together for Migratory Birds

By Jeff Ritterson, Bird Conservation Fellow

On Tuesday, May 9th, I was in Washington D.C. at Standing Together for Migratory Birds—a legislative briefing on federal migratory bird conservation programs.  With recent political changes in Washington, it may seem that support for these programs, and the crucial funding they provide, is on the chopping block.  But that’s not necessarily the case, and here’s why.

As conservation biologists, we understand that humans are inextricable from natural world, and that healthy and functioning ecosystems are inherently good for us.  However, we also understand that money talks, and this was a theme of the legislative briefing.  In remarks given by Senator Whitehouse (Dem-RI), he stated that, more often than not, humans come first on Capitol Hill, and every last issue gets monetized.

With that in mind, the American Birding Association presented on the economics of migratory birds and wildlife watching.  For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that in 2011 Americans spent about $15 billion on birdwatching trips and an additional $26 billion in related gear.  A presentation by Ducks Unlimited also showed that significant money is spent hunting waterfowl, and 98 cents of every dollar from federal duck stamps sales goes to the acquisition of habitat—more than 6 million acres since its inception in 1934.

Of course, these activities depend on the conservation of our migratory bird species, and that’s where federal programs come in.  For example, since 2002 the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act has provided about $60 million to fund over 500 migratory bird conservation projects.  Also, the Farm Bill funds conservation programs that successfully help agricultural producers and migratory birds.  For example, thanks to these programs, Whooping Cranes are now nesting in Louisiana farmland – the first state nest in 75 years.

However, it’s not just a federal handout.  Many programs require additional contributions—as much as 3 dollars for every 1 federal dollar provided.  This way programs stimulate conservation activity and non-federal support from sources such as private foundations and donors.

With such a sound economics, federal migratory bird conservation programs can receive support from both sides of the political aisle.  That said, they are periodically reviewed, and it is important to tell your senators and congressional representative that you support full funding of bird conservation programs.

 

Please consider supporting our bird conservation work by making a donation today. Thank you!

Old Baldy Gets a Haircut

By Tom Lautzenheiser, Central/Western Regional Scientist

Mass Audubon’s Old Baldy Wildlife Sanctuary in Otis offers visitors with a rare view in south Berkshire County: a near 360-degree panoramic view from the summit of its eponymous hill. The landscape below is nearly entirely forested, with few interruptions. The clearing at the summit itself was expanded around 2000, when a previous landowner sought to subdivide the property, and at the same time the forest growing on Old Baldy’s sides was heavily logged. The resulting overlook is a gem in the Berkshires.

The forest harvesting, while completed for economic return, resulted in a conservation benefit because it created much needed habitat for young-forest associated wildlife species—many of whom are experiencing steep long-term population declines throughout the region due largely to habitat loss. In the years following the harvest young-forest species like Chestnut-sided Warbler, Indigo Bunting, White-throated Sparrow, and Eastern Towhee, thrived in the thicket.

Female Eastern Towhee © Susan Wellington

However, in recent years the canopy has been closing as the trees grow, and this crucial habitat has been disappearing.

With the successional clock ticking, Mass Audubon sought and was awarded a Habitat Management Grant from the state Division of Fisheries & Wildlife, which funded the maintenance and expansion of the clearing at Old Baldy in the early spring of 2017.

Old Baldy following the 2017 clearing of trees to create habitat

The loggers did their work well, though the transition appears shocking, with stumps and downed tops strewn as after a storm, and the remnant trees seeming thin and lonely over the slash. Importantly, however, increased sunlight on the ground will stimulate a flush of sprouting, and within a growing season or two the cleared area should be lush with brambles and tree sprouts, again forming the dense cover favored by many species of conservation concern. Within a few years the site will again be prime habitat supporting populations of young-forest birds. Many other wildlife species, including white-tailed deer and black bear, will also find food and shelter in the cleared area.

Until the dense regrowth sprouts up, visitors may notice large brush piles scattered throughout the site. These brush piles are supplemental habitat for New England cottontail, our native rabbit species that is of critical conservation concern.

Mass Audubon’s decision to maintain and expand a forest clearing at Old Baldy was not made lightly, but was made in recognition that without concerted effort, populations of dozens of wildlife species reliant on young-forest habitat will continue to dwindle in the state. Just as the views from the summit of Old Baldy were beginning to be obscured by maturing trees, habitat quality for young-forest species was also declining, and active intervention was necessary to secure the area’s value for these species.

It was time for Old Baldy to get a haircut. And like a haircut, the trees at Old Baldy will grow back, without substantially affecting the land underneath.

 

Please consider supporting our bird conservation work by making a donation today. Thank you!

The Bobolink Project: 2017 season update

 

Male Bobolink © Allan Strong

The Bobolinks are arriving in New England and we’re finalizing the contracts with our participating Bobolink Project farmers. Thanks to the generosity of our Bobolink Project donors, we can protect over 630 acres of farmland this year! In return for some compensation, the Bobolink Project farmers will delay mowing on their hay fields until the young grassland birds have had time to fledge.

As in past years, we had more acres submitted into the project than we could cover with the available pool of donations. This year, we received 40 applications from farmers in Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, and New York—but our donation pool, as of April 1st (our deadline for donations), could cover only 17 of the farmers’ fields. This may sound disappointing, but we are able to cover 20% more acres this year at a lower per acre price of $60 (vs. $75 last year).

We are glad that the project is continuing to grow and look forward to welcoming grassland birds to fields enrolled in the program this summer and sharing our results with you. Keep up to date with The Bobolink Project by signing up to the mail-list or follow us on Facebook.

The Bobolink Project donations are accepted all year. The 2018 donation pool is already growing: since April 1st we have received over $8,000 in donations that will be saved for next year. Donate now to help us protect more acres and birds next year.

 

Tree cavities: home to many creatures

When we think about a bird’s nest, we usually conjure up the image of a cup-shaped tangle of twigs and dried grass, with perhaps some moss or strips of bark, cleverly placed in a bush or the limb of a tree.  Maybe that’s because these are the most visible types of nests, whose remnants are easily seen when the leaves drop each fall.  Nests of other birds a quite difficult to see, even in plain sight.  For example, the Piping Plover creates a just slight depression in the sand, and the Eastern Whip-poor-will nests directly on the forest floor, each with highly camouflaged eggs.

Yet another type of nest are those placed in the cavity of a tree.  Many common bird species are actually cavity nesters, including nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, bluebirds, woodpeckers and some owls.  Cavity nests provide protection from predators, shelter from weather events, and can be chosen with respect to the regional climate.  For example, in northern latitudes woodpeckers are known to orient their cavities south towards the sun, so that their young will stay nice and toasty in the nest.

Pileated Woodpecker family; adult male on left, female on right. © Kim Nagy

Woodpeckers are particularly important in the world of cavity nesters.  While cavities can occur naturally in trees, most species are poorly suited to excavate their own cavities, and often rely on holes created by woodpeckers.

Cavities usually begin with a fungal infection, which creates a soft inner wood that is easy to excavate.  This condition is most common in older dying trees, which eventually become dead standing trees (called snags) and continue to be a good resource for cavity nesters.  Unfortunately, dying trees and snags present inefficiencies to timber production, and a history of land clearing and forestry practices have limited snag numbers.  Meanwhile, populations of woodpeckers and other cavity nesters can suffer if there are too few cavity trees available.

The good news is that forestry can also help to increase the number of cavity trees.  For example, the maintenance of large dying trees and snags is promoted by Mass Audubon’s Foresters for the Birds program.  This program, a partnership between Mass Audubon, MassWoodlands Institute, and the Mass Department of Conservation and Recreation, provides assistance to landowners who wish to manage their woods for bird habitat with sustainable forestry practices.

Empowering private landowners is critical because they own the majority (75%) of forests in Massachusetts.

— Jeff Ritterson, Forest Bird Conservation Fellow, Mass Audubon

Northern Flicker (yellow-shafted) adult female with young in cavity nest © Cynthia Rand

Please consider supporting our bird conservation work by making a donation today. Thank you!

Eastern Meadowlark Citizen Science Project May 15–June 15

Eastern Meadowlark © Phil Brown

Calling all birders and bird enthusiasts!

We have launched a multi-year citizen science project to study Eastern Meadowlarks. The project aims to collect presence-absence data for Eastern Meadowlarks at randomly selected sites throughout Massachusetts from May 15 to June 15, 2017. Eastern Meadowlarks are in serious decline, both in Massachusetts and elsewhere in North America, and in order to better help this species we need to know more about their status in Massachusetts. The data collected through this project will provide valuable information about this species’ current distribution in the Commonwealth, and will form the basis for a better assessment of meadowlark habitat requirements and future conservation needs.

To get the information we need it is critical that we get help from citizen scientists. There are a lot of potential sites where Eastern Meadowlarks could be nesting, but there are only a few of us! The results of this work will help us develop models for use in evaluating potential sites that have not been visited.

Project data can be easily entered through the Anecdata website on a computer or in the field on a mobile smartphone device. The surveys required are simple and quick (10 minutes!) to do. We’ve provided our citizen scientist volunteers with “hotspots” where we specifically need a volunteer to do a meadowlark survey on three separate dates (with preferably at least 3 days in between each date) during the period of May 15 and June 15. Many of these hotspots will likely not have Eastern Meadowlarks, but knowing where Eastern Meadowlarks are not is just as valuable for scientific analysis as knowing where Eastern Meadowlarks are.

More information about how to get involved is available on the project website.

Not familiar with Eastern Meadowlarks? Check out our quick guide and listen to their song.

Questions? Contact us at birdconservation@massaudubon.org.

Blackpoll Warbler: an impressive sprinter

Male Blackpoll Warbler © Kenneth Cole Schneider

“Its activity is pleasing, but its notes have no title to be called a song. They are shrill, and resemble the noise made by striking two small pebbles together, more than any other sound that I know.” – John James Audubon, Birds of America

The Blackpoll Warbler is a very common migrant in Massachusetts, and it is often located by its high-frequency song as it passes through the state. The sound is so high that many birders claim that being unable to hear the Blackpoll Warbler’s song is one of the first signs of hearing loss. From June through August, however, there are precious few places in the Commonwealth where even observers with the keenest hearing can hope to hear a Blackpoll Warbler sing. Given that we are on the extreme southern edge of this species’ breeding range, it is not surprising that breeding pairs of this subalpine specialist are few and far between in the Bay State. Mount Greylock is most likely place to see a breeding Blackpoll Warbler in Massachusetts.

Did You Know?

During migration the Blackpoll Warbler—weighing in at just 12 grams (lighter than a soda can)—flies for three straight days over the Atlantic Ocean before stopping in Colombia or Venezuela. In addition, Blackpoll Warblers that breed on the northwest coast of the U.S. first fly across the continent to join up with their eastern counterparts before flying south. This is one of the most impressive migrations of any animal.

Please consider supporting our bird conservation work by making a donation today. Thank you!